There are the luxuries that make your life better in some measurable way, and then there are the luxuries that make no practical difference at all. In the first category: heated floors (warming), linen sheets (breezy), Le Creuset pots (continental). In the second category: stamped ice.
Stamped ice, for the uninitiated, is like regular ice, only it has been imprinted, usually with the monogram of a bar where it is served. “CM” at the downtown Italian restaurant Carne Mare or “PB” at the Pete Davidson–backed Pebble Bar. At Overstory, a bar on the 64th story of a FiDi high-rise, they go with “Overstory.” At Eleven Madison Park, ice gets stamped with stylized pictures of a leaf.
The first time I saw it, I thought, Whoa. Stamped ice is majestic; stamped ice is absurd. What is the point of this? Branding, obviously. But really, stamped ice exists for one reason only, and that is because it can.
Over the past two years, we have learned you can do many things at home including drinking. Vermouth sales skyrocketed. The city’s finest bars started selling cocktails to go, sometimes even with the garnishes. Ever more people learned how to store a bottle of martini in their freezer. The detail that didn’t translate, besides the atmosphere, was the ice. I had even sort of forgotten about ice — not that it existed, of course, but that it could exist well. Restaurants and bars can feel so inspiring precisely because there are people in these establishments who look at something as perfectly acceptable as regular ice and think, This can be better.
By popular account, the first bar to stamp its ice in New York was Dante, which debuted its branded cubes in 2016 after one of its bartenders saw them at an international outpost of the Japanese restaurant and cocktail bar Zuma. “At the time, it was uncommon,” recalls Dante co-owner Linden Pride. Team Zuma connected Pride to a metalworks factory, where they promptly had four custom copper stamps made bearing the logo, “DANTE.” In the world of bar ice, it was an immediate sensation. “Robert Simonson wrote about it in the New York Times, and the phone honestly rang for weeks,” Pride says. Where did Dante get the stamp? Where could they get their own stamp? (Looking back, Pride sees a missed opportunity to diversify his revenue stream: “If we weren’t so busy trying to survive in New York City, it might have been a good business proposition.”)
Before there was stamped ice, there was “big ice.” In the early 2010s, everyone was very enthusiastic about ice: crystal-clear, hand-cut blocks of frozen water sawed into perfect, giant cubes. The appeal of specialty ice is that, unlike most artisanal luxuries, it requires no expertise, no discernment, and no palate to appreciate. Its majesty is obvious. “The next evolution of that was decorating them with these copper stamps,” explains Pride. But big ice is driven at least in part by function: Because it melts more slowly than regular ice, it can chill a drink without overdiluting it. The function of stamping it, though, is it looks cool.
Here is how an ice stamp works: You take a piece of copper or brass, and you press it into big ice. “It’s not anything fancy,” Harrison Ginsberg, the bar director at Overstory, assures me. “You don’t heat it. You just take the stamp at room temperature and press it onto the cube, and the metal reacting with the ice just kind of melts it.” That’s it. That’s the whole thing.
Do we need stamped ice? Profoundly, no. It tastes the same. It melts the same. Yet I cannot get enough. What stamped ice is — above all else, I keep thinking — is an embarrassment of care.
You could do it yourself. It’s easy enough to get a stamp these days, though you’d need to make big ice first, which is possible only if you have space in your freezer for at least 24 hours — but potentially several days — as well as the various tools required for chipping and cutting. As hobbies go, this is relatively doable (it requires much less buy-in than, say, sailing, which necessitates a boat), but for a drink, it is probably too much. It is one thing to mix a reasonable old-fashioned and another to have the dedication and foresight to retain an ice pick. “If you’re the type of person who has a home bar with your shiny gold bar cart, and you’re entertaining in that grand fashion at home, then sure, it’s a ‘home activity,’” laughs Camper English, a cocktail expert and noted ice aficionado. “But I don’t think I’ve seen it in anyone else’s home except for mine.” Stamped ice is a reason to go out.
It is excessive. It is stupid. It is too much, more than any drink needs, more than anyone deserves. “It just shows that attention to detail and very high level of care,” Pride agrees: detail for detail’s sake, care not just for the drinker but also for the enterprise of drinking.