Ice has been in the news for the wrong reasons lately. As cringe-inducing as a $1 upcharge for frozen water may seem, it's a reminder that ice can be just as important to a cocktail as a fancy spirit. Make a drink with unfiltered water and you're introducing off-flavors and impurities into the glass. And if your ice melts too fast, it turns the sharp flavors of a gin and tonic into a watery blur of botanicals. That's the thing about ice: It's at its best when it's completely unobtrusive, doing nothing but keeping your drink cold.
On a rare occasion, though, ice can take a starring role. The cocktail menu at the new Willie's Brew & Que features an Old Fashioned variation called Ole Smokey, which gets its unique flavor from two ingredients: brown sugar, instead of the usual white granular stuff, and "smoked ice."
The smoked ice starts as regular ice, which is placed in chef Rock Harper's barbecue smoker. It spends several hours melting while absorbing the sweetness of hickory smoke and the aromas of slow-cooked meat. It's then refrozen into two-by-two-inch cubes. While the ice is only featured in one cocktail on the menu, bartenders are happy to let customers put a smoked cube in any of the dozens of whiskeys behind the bar. (Bonus: There's no upcharge for it.) We tried it with Angel's Envy rye and the 10-year-old Russell's Reserve bourbon, both of which cost $10 per pour.
The ice really only lends a campfire aroma at first, but as you swirl the whiskey around in the glass, and the ice melts a bit, the whiskey begins to taste smokier, with notes of charcoal and spices. The Angel's Envy, which already is full of oaky vanilla, got noticeably richer and more complex. Russell's Reserve, on the other hand, tasted slightly more savory, but there wasn't a dramatic impact beyond the nose.
Smoked ice is a novelty, similar to the way that bartenders "fat-wash" bourbon to infuse the flavors of bacon or duck. But as a precursor to Harper's charred, fall-off-the-bone Korean-style wings, or the smoky, vinegar-based barbecue, it's a wonderful aperitif.
Willie's Brew & Que, 300 Tingey St. SE. 202-651-6375. www.williesbrewnque.com.