More than a decade ago I saw the cocktail future while vacationing with friends in Tokyo. I was led through back alleys of Ginza and into unmarked elevators in Shibuya to swank bars where tuxedoed bartenders—they weren’t called mixologists yet—shook, swizzled, and stirred delicious drinks into the wee hours of the morning. Most memorable among them was Bar Tokyo, where four white-jacketed bartenders serviced six stools and the free snacks included transcendent sashimi and other beautifully plated amuse-bouches fitting of our $600-plus tab. And then there was the subterranean Alcohall, where I first saw blocks of ice chipped by hand into the perfect crystalline spheres that rotated in our glasses as we drank.
The origin of the Japanese ice ball, as it has come to be known, was based on the logic that minimizing the surface area of ice in a drink will minimize melting and therefore dilution. It’s also totally cool. There are inexpensive molds that help you achieve an icy orb, but most have the problems of trapping air in the water as it freezes, which increases melting, and/or produces an unsightly seam. That explains the gadget every cocktailian covets: the Japanese Ice Ball Machine (YouTube it). Imported from Tokyo—where else?—it compresses a block of ice into an impressive sphere (or diamond) of sparkling brilliance. All you have to do is procure clear ice, though that’s easier said than done. Purists still prefer hand chipping, of course, which, in addition to adding the artisanal touch so prized in Japanese and now mixology culture, also produces a sort of hypothermal Zen. Nothing a stiff drink or two won’t snap you out of, if the bill doesn’t wake you first.