Up or on the rocks? Bartenders are now employing another technique that keeps drinks cold, gives them the dilution they need and serves them up in a memorable way. Sphered cocktails, which are suspended inside a partially frozen drained ice sphere before either cracked tableside or left to melt and morph the rest of the drink, are having a moment (and providing Boomerang opportunities aplenty).
For the luxe Midnight in Paradis cocktail at Rebar in Chicago, bartenders freeze water for two hours inside a spherical mold, then just before it solidifies, a soldering iron is used to create a small opening in the middle of the sphere from which the water is drained out and the drink’s ingredients are added using a syringe. “The inspiration ... was to create a luxury cocktail experience combining high-end ingredients [and] spirits and a ‘smashing presentation,’” says manager Blake Fehlhaber.
The libation, which mixes truffle-infused Hennessy Paradis cognac, CH amaro, honey syrup and Cocchi Americano Rosa aperitivo, is garnished with grated fresh truffle and cracked tableside, transforming it from a drink inside a rock to one on the rocks. Flipping the mold while it’s in the freezer is the key to consistency, says Fehlhaber, about an hour and 10 minutes in.
A similar method is used for the Sphered Fashioned, served at The Circular at The Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pa. A syringe of Maker’s Mark bourbon, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, aged orange bitters and simple syrup goes into a frozen, drained ice sphere that’s cracked and garnished with an orange twist.
“Aesthetics are the main factor, and we can play up ‘breaking the ice’ with a group of people enjoying their time at The Circular,” says restaurant director Salvatore Mancuso. Because this method doesn’t require any special equipment, it’s an easy way to add buzz to a drinks program—or to cocktails made at home.
The In the Rocks Old Fashioned at The Aviary in Chicago requires a little molecular magic, though. Beverage director Micah Melton drops a water balloon filled with the drink’s ingredients into an ice bath until the mixture gets to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Then he places it in an immersion circulator filled with equal parts water and neutral grain spirit, which lets the machine run a constant cold temperature below the freezing point of water and maintain liquid contact.
“Think of putting a warm bottle of Champagne in an ice bath versus putting that bottle in the fridge,” says Melton. “The ice bath will get cold about 12 times faster.” The sphere is frozen in five minutes and 30 seconds in a bath that’s kept at 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Though the bar rotates through different classic cocktails, the current one on the menu mixes The Aviary’s Select Single Barrel, Barrel A Proof Wyoming whiskey, with demerara syrup, Angostura bitters and orange oil.
Of course, there’s also a more practical reason to serve a drink inside a ball of ice then to lend a dramatic presentation. “The idea was to create a craft cocktail that could be prepped in advance during down time—a consistent craft cocktail without the wait,” says Jeff Hammett, the beverage director at Swift’s Attic in Austin.
He freezes all the fixings for the Ice Ball Oldie, including lemon and orange juices and peels, Angostura bitters, Cherry Heering, simple syrup, a Luxardo cherry and a small amount of the base spirit (Tincup whiskey), in sphere molds. To serve, the sphere is placed in a rocks glass, and more whiskey is poured on top. As it melts, the drink transforms from boozy to balanced.
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Speaking of morphing cocktails, the Transformation Cubed at Firefly in Washington, D.C,. is a sphered sip that’s two classic drinks in one. Lead bartender Brendan Ambrose pours a riff on the Gimlet made with rooftop-garden-grown basil on top of an Aviation ice sphere of gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and crème de violette. “The drink starts crisp, fresh and a bit sour from the Gimlet, but as the Aviation sphere melts, the flavor changes from sour to to a sour-sweet to a sweet finish,” says Ambrose. (Its hue also evolves from clear to purple.)
It took Ambrose about two weeks to get the ratio of liquor to water correct so it would freeze without fading the color of the sphere. When using rubber mold trays, he fills the bottom tray with the liquid and secures the top tray with one rubber band stretched lengthwise and two widthwise, which keeps the top of the tray from rising as it’s filled. He then fills the trays the rest of the way with liquids dispensed from a squirt bottle.
Of course, just like fat washing, dry ice and sous vide, the question remains: Are sphered cocktails a passing fancy or here to stay? The bar world is admittedly a bit fickle and cyclical, and Ambrose predicts that “it’s only a trend until the next trend comes along.” So get cracking.