What Is the Best At-Home Ice Maker for Cocktails?
By Aaron Goldfarb / September 11, 2019 7:11 am

These days the at-home bartender can do everything like the pros. They can pour the same top-shelf spirits, use freshly squeezed juices, make their own tinctures (whatever those are), and even work with the same high-end bar supplies and glassware, courtesy of suppliers like Cocktail Kingdom.

But there’s always been one category where the kitchen mixologist has never quite been able to cut it: ice. No matter how good your freezer, no matter how diligent your filling of BPA-free silicone ice trays, it’s virtually impossible for the drink-slinging dilettante to easily access crystal-clear jumbo cubes and soft pebble ice. But a new breed of companies is trying to change that, by offering amateur bartenders the tools they need to master ice in a way that only pros could previously.

“Nugget ice is kinda a phenomenon to itself,” claims Larry Portaro, the executive director of FirstBuild. This G.E. Appliances-supported crowd-sourced “innovation incubator” is the current clubhouse leader in the at-home cocktail ice race. Their first product, the Opal Nugget Ice Maker, was suggested by a GE appliance engineer in early 2015. He had noticed people’s obsession with the airy, chewable ice offered by fast food restaurants like Sonic, and also quintessential in making cocktails like the Mint Julep and cobblers such as the Bramble.

While certainly a less ubiquitous presence in cocktail bars than, say, the single oversized cube, it was a savvy move for FirstBuild to enter the fray with nugget ice. It’s arguably the one key form of cocktail ice virtually impossible to recreate at home, because very few residential refrigerators make nugget ice — and, the industrial models used at cocktail bars are massive and can cost upwards of $2,000-$3,000. If you needed it for your at-home Sherry Cobbler, your best bet was to use something called a Lewis bag (and a mallet) to create crushed ice, which is unfortunately nowhere close to as pliable and geometrically pleasing as bar-quality nugget ice. Enter the Opal, which compresses shaved ice into tiny, roundish nuggets.

Even as nothing more than an online prototype, it clearly resonated with consumers. FirstBuild pre-sold over $2.5 million worth of the $499 machine in the late summer of 2015. Three years later, it was built and ready to ship, and today is available on Amazon and at Home Depot. Opal can create a pound of ice per hour, and hold up to three pounds at a time — theoretically enough to make around 100 cocktails a day. At around the size of a Keurig, it fits on a kitchen counter. But I still have to wonder: Does FirstBuild see Opal’s being a future kitchen must-have for all, stored right next to the toaster and knife block?

“We think of it as an affordable luxury,” Portaro tells InsideHook, who believes Opal’s ease of use is its greatest selling point. “The product itself tends to have a much wider reach than some other home nugget ice solutions that need to be built into cabinets and may even require hiring a plumber.”

Speaking to the FirstBuild team, I didn’t get the sense they were cocktail experts by any means, and FirstBuild is not a cocktail company — some of their other products include a ventless pizza oven and a hammock for catching errant laundry. But I’m not sure that really matters. Coming from G.E., they’re appliance experts by trade, and able to engineer fit-for-a-pro products that have quickly garnered support from the actual pros. It doesn’t hurt that FirstBuild is located in Louisville.

“We are very fortunate to reside in the capital of bourbon country, Kentucky,” says Portaro. “It’s wonderful for us to be around spirit enthusiasts to learn from and see the enthusiasm for the products they want to be created.”

They’ve thus used input from local whiskey connoisseur groups like Bourbon Brotherhood and Bourbon Women, and also worked with local bartenders (from places like local speakeasy Hell or High Water), chefs (David Danielson of Churchill Downs) and even whiskey brands (Old Forester) to perfect things. Recently, they tapped acclaimed bourbon writer and personality (and this scribe’s sometime editor) Fred Minnick as a celebrity endorser for their second product, one that makes large, crystal-clear cubes.

Want to make perfect pebble ice at home? It’ll cost you over $500.

Cubs are a much more common type of cocktail ice, and just about anyone with even a passing interest in at-home mixology probably has a silicone “King Cube” tray or baseball-shaped ice mold currently in their freezer. And while those affordable products can certainly create impressively sized cubes (for drinks like the Old-Fashioned or Vieux Carre), they are incapable of producing the sexy, see-through ice available at top-flight cocktail bars. (Cloudy ice isn’t just aesthetically displeasing, it’s also prone to cracking and melting faster.) 

The world is full of old wives’ tales about making clear ice, everything from boiling water beforehand to using purified H2O. But those are purely myths, as anyone who has ever tried them knows. If it was so easy, cocktails bar wouldn’t have to make their large cubes courtesy of $3,000-$8,000 KoldDraft machines or by literally hand-carving glass-filling shapes from giant blocks of flawlessly clear ice — again, options not feasible for most at-home bartenders. 

So what to do?

On the cheaper, less-gadgety end of the spectrum is True Cubes, which claims to mimic the freezing process found in nature by utilizing a multi-chamber system that assists in directional freezing — the one and only way to create clear ice. It’ll run you about $40 for a four-cube maker. A similar multi-chambered, directional-freezing ice technology, OnTheRocks, raised over $110,000 on IndieGogo in 2016 and now sells for $65-90. While True Cube only offers ice cubes, OnTheRocks additionally offers the ability to create crystal-clear spheres and diamonds. (Both products advertise being about the size of a gallon of ice cream.)

There’s also Wintersmiths, who claims its $140 The Phantom Ice Maker and its patent-pending design are able to isolate and remove air bubbles and impurities, keeping the cubes — say it with me  — crystal clear. The freezer-ready device produces “ultra-dense” cubes (large and standard) and spheres, as well as prisms and even ice spears fit for highball glasses. It’s slightly larger than True Cubes and OnTheRocks (and a gallon of ice cream), though produces a greater yield of ice. 

Most notable and most expensive is another FirstBuild product, now available for preorder, but not shipping until the summer of 2020. If Opal was an “affordable luxury,” the Forge Clear Ice System is a bit less so, and a lot more highfalutin in appearance — if you’ve ever seen a Sharper Image-branded speaker, you’re on the right track. The $1,499 device is said to produce the “gold standard” of ice for whiskey enthusiasts, a market FirstBuild seems to be pursuing even more so than cocktailians.

Like Opal, Forge is a countertop product that doesn’t require using your freezer; it makes its blocks of “gem-shaped” ice in about four hours (other cocktail ice systems might take upwards of 30). To make the gems into crystal-clear spheres, you simply slip them into a heated press; it takes about a minute to produce each sphere. There are other add-ons as well, like tongs to remove your ice like a mad scientist handling uranium or a $299 custom brand for adding your man-cave logo to each cube. Next thing you know, you have a $2,000 piece of technology plugged in right next to your bread bin but not enough friends around to drink the Negronis it yields. 

Having said that, it’s hard to be a committed home bartender and not covet the product just a little bit, as I certainly do. It’s just so easy, but then again, it is just making ice.

“I think it’s really our first thought to elevate the ice experience for our consumer,” says Portaro, who admits it’s not rocket science. “We do that by making it simple — you take tap water, you press a button, you have clear ice in around four hours.”