When Swift’s Attic bartender Curtis Hansford would visit downtown bars and order a cocktail, he noticed two important trends. The drinks he ordered would take 15 minutes to make and would often contain outlandish ingredients that had no business being in cocktails. They also featured large artisanal ice cubes cut into squares, spheres or long rectangles, products of an increasing number of ice programs at bars and restaurants seeking to heighten the quality of their cocktails (this ice takes longer to melt, which means the cocktail won’t be diluted by excess water).
“I found the scene getting too pretentious in some ways,” Hansford said. “At the same time, I saw all the different types of ice programs being done and decided to see what I could do with one here.”
As a result of his trial-and-error experimentation — he said his roommates were very happy for awhile getting to try new drinks every night — Swift’s Attic added six cocktails to the menu earlier this year, but they aren’t spread among the others already there, including one on tap and another that’s been barrel-aged. Instead, they’ve got a page all to themselves because they’re as unusual as some of the ingredients Hansford didn’t like seeing in his drinks at local bars.
Swift’s Attic calls them ice ball cocktails, and that’s exactly what they are. Most of the components of each cocktail are built into spherical ice molds with water and then frozen overnight; once a customer orders one of them, the icy orb containing those ingredients is added to a cocktail glass and the requisite spirit poured over it. They have the benefit of eliminating time without diminishing quality, one of the problems that Hansford had noticed at other places.
When you have a sip of your first ice ball cocktail, it might seem to be overly boozy because all you’re tasting while the ice melts is the spirit, whether it’s rye, tequila, bourbon or gin. But bar manager Jeff Hammett, who developed the ice ball drinks into a full program at Swift’s Attic, said that’s partly the idea. “They’re supposed to be big and boozy, supposed to give you a little hit,” he said, adding that if you like the alcohol in your drinks disguised by the other ingredients, you can let the ice ball cocktail sit for a bit — or, as one couple does, share it so that one person has the first shot and the other person has a second, once the ice ball has melted.
The ice balls also don’t dilute the characteristics of the traditional cocktails, he said. The ice ball cocktails include an Old-Fashioned (called the “Ice Ball Oldie”), a Manhattan, an Apple Mint Julep and a Sazerac (a “Sazer-rock”), as well as a couple of original drinks: Strawberry Fields, which contains a sherbet ice ball, and Stage Name, a favorite of Hammett’s that will be more savory than the others. These are all $12.
Besides being eye-catching, the ice ball cocktails have a real purpose for Swift’s Attic bartenders, especially during busy nights. Hammett said that because most of the cocktail is prepared ahead of time, they’re able to deliver them much faster to customers than they normally would. “You’re able to get a nice craft cocktail in 10 seconds,” he said. “While you’re still at work, stuck in traffic on the way home, getting ready to go out for the night, I’m doing all the prep work to help you have a good experience.”
I tried a couple of them recently, the Ice Ball Oldie and the Strawberry Fields, and noticed how easily drinkable they are. The Oldie unfolds slowly, with the cherry heering, orange and lemon zest and juice, and luxardo maraschino cherry taking their places beside the Knob Creek Rye after a few minutes, an effect that allowed me to relish each element on its own and then as a complement to the whole. Strawberry Fields was far less boozy from the start thanks to the sherbet ice ball, filled with strawberry, kaffir lime and toasted coriander, and the prosecco that accompanied the Santo Azul Blanco Tequila — it’s a cocktail you’ll find yourself drinking all of without even realizing it (and that sherbet ball is also very edible).
Along with the others, both cocktails prove that the ice ball program at Swift’s Attic isn’t simply a gimmick; it’s an innovative way to produce craft cocktails quickly without compromising quality.