Food & Drink

9 crazy historical facts about the ice in your drink

Making big ice at House of Walker

In our never-ending quest to know more stuff about things, we attended a House of Walker® session on the history and science of big ice led by Richie Boccato, founder of NYC’s Hundredweight -- possibly the first company to specialize in giant frozen blocks specifically designed for cocktails.

We'll tackle the science separately. For now, here's the weirdly awesome history:

Down by the River
Ancient Mesopotamians sold ice along the Euphrates 4000 years ago. Among other things, they used it to cool wine, so next time someone makes fun of your drinking habits, tell them dropping ice in your Pinot isn’t just civilized, it’s the cradle-of-civilized.

What a Flake
The Roman emperor Nero packed snow around his goblet to chill his wine without diluting or contaminating it. Nero is also the emperor alleged to have “fiddled while Rome burned”, but obviously he wasn’t fiddling, or even luting/lyring -- he was packing snow around goblets.

Coming Down the Mountain
One ancient method of attaining booze ice: hauling it down from mountains on the backs of animals. More modernish times saw silo-storage operations like Real Fábrica do Gelo -- Portugal's Royal Ice Factory (above) -- which is "internationally considered a unique case for the originality of its structures and the reasonable state of preservation." Sure looks like it!

Cold Hard Cash
The American ice industry was birthed in 1805 by Bostonian Frederic Tudor, who set out to supply the South and Caribbean with massive, beverage-chilling blocks tonged up by the ton from Massachusetts lakes. Tudor thought the idea would make him "inevitably and unavoidably rich". Other people thought he'd go broke. Everyone was right: after a year in debtors prison, Tudor rebounded to become "The Ice King".

Ice, Ice Davy
One of the ponds harvested by Tudor was none other than Walden. Some of Henry David Thoreau’s best stuff was written while watching burly men maneuver blocks destined to chill claret in Calcutta.

Go Home and Get Your Shine Box
In its peak year of 1886, the natural ice business sold 25,000,000 tons. The weirdest sub-profession produced by all this activity? The “shine boy”, who’d scurry after carriages crossing frozen lakes and sweep away the horse droppings to keep the ice harvestable. There are dream jobs, and then there are steam jobs.

Is There a Doctor in the House?
Okay, now it's 1847, in Apalachicola, Florida, at a Bastille Day party thrown by the French consul, Monsieur Rosan (why Apalachicola has a French consul is anybody's guess). Huge problem: Tudor’s ice melted in-transport, and Rosan must serve hot champagne.

Or must he? Theatrically, he announces “On Bastille Day, France gave her citizens what they wanted. Rosan gives his guests what they want, cool wines!” Then the waiters break out bubbly chilled by one of the first ice machines (above), patented by Dr. John Gorrie. Ironically, Gorrie'd been working on cooling rooms for malaria victims, and wasn't at all interested in helping Frenchmen escape a fate worse than malaria (hot wine).

Crushed Ice
Gorrie's ice machine made him super-rich too. Just kidding. He actually died penniless, believing (probably correctly) that Tudor had directed a smear campaign accusing him of thinking he was better than God for presuming to freeze his own water. On the bright side, he got a sweet museum named after himself. And also this bridge.

Can I Get Your Digits?
One last amazing thing. As tends to happen, the machines caught on, though it took ‘til the next century for them to overtake lake ice. The battle for supremacy between the two was freaking terrifying: in one incident, a machine ice man took a swing at a lake ice loyalist, and in the ensuing brawl, the lake ice guy BIT OFF THE MACHINE ICE GUY’S FINGER.

Today’s bartenders might be serious about ice, but they’re not that serious.

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