Neat Ice Kit

What the shit is this? This isn’t a cocktail! An irrefutable fact, dear Readers. I’ve decided to expand the breadth of my cocktail blogging to include some equipment reviews. Who knows? Maybe I’ll throw in a bottle review, or even a local bar review here and there. The sky’s the limit for 2015, People! (well, what’s left of it.) Brace yourselves.

Alright Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Before we delve into the review, let’s talk about ice. Helluva thing, ice is. It’s a bit of a miracle, really. The amount of pure chilling potential contained in ice is mind boggling when you think about it. If you’re already an ice geek then you’ve probably poured over the literature published by Camper English, Dave Arnold and Kevin Liu. A single gram of ice is capable of providing 80 calories (334 joules, if you’re into the whole metric thing) of chilling energy. Liquid nitrogen, which sits at a crazy -196°C (-320°F) only provides 15% more chilling power than ice (92 calories/gram of LN2). If that doesn’t blow your mind, well… we can’t be friends.

I’d love to talk about the beautiful battle between entropy and enthalpy in the context of the phase change of H2O, but I fear losing the little readership that I have. Ah, screw it – I’m gonna do it. I’ll try and be as succinct as possible. If you want to skip down to the TL;DR review, please don’t hesitate to do so.

Okay, so, entropy is a measure of the number of specific ways in which a thermodynamic system may be arranged, commonly understood as a measure of disorder. Entropy loves disorder. Lives on it. Two-year-olds are basically entropy incarnate. You turn your back on them for a split second, then turn back ‘round and your entire house is wrecked – that’s entropy. Entropy prefers water in a liquid state – all those water molecules are able to zing around and exist in a whole slew of “microstates”. Remember, the more disorder, the more entropy. The universe veers towards disorder at any chance it can get. The universe is inherently set to autofuck. When water freezes, the molecules are trapped in a rigid structure and entropy hates that. It hates being confined. Pisses it off to no end.

Then there’s enthalpy. Enthalpy is essentially a measure of energy change in a system. The other thing that we need to know about the universe is that it prefers lower energy systems over high energy ones. It would rather sit on the couch and watch football than get out and go for a run. Goddamn, deadbeat universe. So, freezing is an endothermic reaction, i.e. it gives off heat. Make sense? When the water gets cold enough to freeze, the heat’s gotta go somewhere, right? Releasing energy results in a lower energy state, so enthalpy likes ice.

So when the temperature of water dips below its freezing/melting point, enthalpy starts to win. As the temp climbs above, entropy makes a come back.

Still with me? Alright. A few more fun facts about ice:

  1. Melting/freezing takes place on the surface of the ice. As such, there is a thin film of liquid water on the surface. The smaller the ice used, the more surface area per given volume of ice and therefore the more melt water. As such, as soon as you add the ice to your drink, the melt water already present on the ice dilutes the drink nearly instantly. After this initial dilution, the ice won’t melt any faster than large pieces of ice, presuming your cocktail is properly chilled to begin with. Don’t use small/crushed ice to keep your drink cold unless you want to intentionally dilute your cocktail (which you often do if you’ve made a wonderfully boozy tiki drink). Ideally you would use one massive cube. Well, I suppose you could use smaller cubes if you first put them in a centrifuge and spun off all the melt water, then immediately added them to your drink… Stick with a big cube (2” or bigger).
  2. Some of your cocktail sticks to the surface of the ice after you pour the cocktail into your glass. Dave Arnold’s testing has indicated that if you are using crushed ice, up to 25% of the cocktail cannot be extracted from the ice due to all that surface area. That’s right – that ice is stealing up to a quarter of your precious cocktail. Filthy, thieving bastard ice! But if you stir your cocktail using larger cubes (in the neighborhood of 1¼” cubes), then the quantity lost to the ice is reduced to just 4%. Use 1¼” cubes when you stir.
  3. Shaking with a big cube, rather than shaking with exclusively 1¼” cubes, results in better texture. More froth, more bubbles. Yum. The thing is that the bigger cube won’t melt quick enough to provide correct dilution to the cocktail. Solution: add two 1¼” cubes along with the big (2” – 2¼”) cube in order to achieve optimum dilution.

So that’s all well and good. Let’s get to the primary purpose of this post. Fun Fact #1 above indicates that bigger ice is better for keeping your already chilled cocktail cold with minimal dilution. This can be achieved with a couple products: for instance, Tovolo makes a King Cube ice tray and Colossal Cube molds that make cubes that are 2” and 2¼”, respectively. These will work perfectly for creating the kind of large cubes I am talking about. They won’t unduly dilute your finished cocktail and they won’t steal too much of the cocktail as you imbibe. But here’s the thing – they won’t be clear. Gasp!

Who cares? Why does clear ice matter? Well, from a technical perspective, it doesn’t matter much at all. Clear ice is essentially pure aesthetics. Like food, you taste with your eyes first. When I feast my eyes on a cocktail freshly poured over a beautifully clear, wonderfully huge piece of ice, my salivary glands start to spaz out and squirt like crazy. If I’m honest, I actually start to salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs when I see a large clear piece of ice sitting in an otherwise empty class.

How does one make clear ice? Well, first, we should figure out what makes ice cloudy. Gas, minerals, bacteria, dust and other impurities are the culprits. As the temperature of water is slowly reduced below 0°C (32°F) ice crystal nucleation begins to occur, usually at the sites of these impurities. Crystal growth continues from there, pushing out the impurities that don’t fit inside the crystal lattice. However, if the temperature drops quickly – resulting in very rapid freezing – the number of nucleation sites is exponentially greater and the ice crystals produced are considerably smaller. The impurities are unable to be liberated from the confines of the tighter crystal structure and are trapped for all time (well, at least until the ice melts).

So we need to freeze ice very slowly for optimum clarity. You could do this by keeping water at a temperature a couple degrees below 0°C (32°F). You’ll most likely need a Clinebell ice machine (only $5,365 USD!) or a dedicated freezer complete with proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller that will precisely turn on/shut off the freezer to maintain the correct temperature. Both of those rank pretty high on the silly-scale.

Alternatively, you can insulate the ice mold in order to decrease the rate of temperature change. The aforementioned ice gurus have suggested going out and buying a small 7 or 9 quart Igloo® cooler, filling it with water and placing it in your freezer with the top off. This results in slow, top-down freezing, pushing the air and impurities down to the bottom of the cooler. The top part of the ice block will be pristine, while the bottom will be opaque. Brian Johnson at Better Cocktails at Home has devised something similar involving tupperware wrapped with foil-faced bubble insulation. I don’t know about you, but my freezer is full of, ya know – food. I can’t just slide in an object measuring 13” x 9.5” x 9”. Freezer real estate is at a premium. Even Brian’s set-up is too large for our dinky freezer. During the winter months here in the wilds of Canada I can just leave the cooler/tupperware outside, but that only works for 10 months of the year (haha, joking… sort of). The Neat Ice Kit uses this same principle, but in a more manageable size and in a pretty slick package.

The Review

Introduction

The Neat Ice Kit began as a Kickstarter campaign run by Tom Gerhardt and Dan Provost, the two designers behind Studio Neat. The campaign was featured on Uncrate and was successfully funded ($155,519 pledged of their $50,000 goal) shortly thereafter. The kit is offered in Single and Double Mold variations and comes with a muddler, chisel, and Lewis bag. The single mold kit will run you $60 USD and the double mold kit for $80 USD. Not exactly cheap.

Paternal Drunk - Post 37 - Neat Ice Kit - S

Quality and Materials

Production quality is great. Fit and finish are admirable and all of the materials used throughout feel good in the hand. The table below lists each component along with where each is made.

Component Location of Manufacture Manufacturer
Foam insulation Undisclosed City, China Undisclosed
Silicone mold Casco Bay Molding Sanford, Maine
Ice chisel Undisclosed City, China Undisclosed
Muddler Wood: Wells Wood Turning

Silicone: Aero Rubber

Wood: Buckfield, Maine
Silicone: Tinley Park, Illinois
Lewis bag Unionwear Newark, New Jersey

I contacted Dan and Tom asking where in China the insulation and chisel are made. They responded thusly:

“We’d actually prefer not to divulge that information. And it’s not actually a clean answer, there are a couple companies in the mix.”

Huh. How mysterious. Well, based on no empirical evidence whatsoever, I am going on record saying that they’re made by Shaolin monks in northern Henan province, just west of the city of Zhengzhou. Fancy.

The foam insulation fits well in the hand and can be easily gripped. There is a removable piece of foam at the bottom to facilitate ejection of the silicone mold. This piece is slightly recessed to accommodate a phenomenon called the anomalous expansion of water and expansion due to freezing. When you chill water below 4°C (39°F), water expands. To my knowledge, this is pretty much the only material on the planet that expands when it gets colder. Water will expand something like 9% when it freezes. Bizarre. Anyway, two notches are also provided at the bottom so you can use your thumbs to push the silicone mold out. The orange mold fits well within the insulation with no play, yet slides in and out with ease. The insulation and the silicone band on the muddler are finished in a nice dark gray colour, which I think looks pretty sharp.

Speaking of sharp, the ice chisel is hella sharp. It’s machined from aluminum and polished to a mirror shine. Very nice. Good work, monks. The chisel also incorporates a bottle opener, which is handy. One niggle is that fabulous mirror finish can get smudged up with fingerprints pretty easily, but again – only a niggle.

The muddler is of hard maple construction and is turned on a lathe into a slightly tapered club-like shape. The fatter end is fitted with a silicone band to protect the wood when you are using it to tap the end of the chisel when splitting an ice brick. It’s fine. It’s well made, but there are better tools for muddling and for smashing ice out there. If you’re buying an ice kit specifically for production of clear ice, chances are you already have a muddler. That being said, it works just fine for splitting ice. (Just be careful not to whack the end of the chisel too hard – repeated heavy-handed use will damage the silicone band.)

Similarly, the Lewis bag looks to be durable and should last a lifetime of home use. It’s made with duck canvas and does a good job of wicking away moisture from the ice once it’s been bludgeoned to smithereens. However, I like my McSology bag better (it uses a heavier weight duck canvas, holds more ice and has a loop so it can hang dry. Stitching/reinforcement is similar between the two).

Performance

So, let’s get down to the brass tacks: does the Neat Ice Kit work?

Yes. Mostly.

There appears to be some black magic at work here. And perhaps a touch of chaotic behavior. Before I get into that, here is a comparison of the cubes obtained from A) the Neat Ice Kit, B) the Tovolo King Cube Ice Tray, and D) the Tovolo Perfect Cube Tray (it would seem letter “C” has been disappeared… neither of my daughters are talking).

Paternal Drunk - Post 37 - Ice Mold Comparison 2 - S

As you can see, the Neat Ice Kit cube trumps the King Cube. And compared to the cubes from the Perfect Cube tray, well… the rinky dinky “perfect” cubes look kinda sad next to the bigger ones. “Perfect” for what? Stirring and shaking, that’s what.

Without insulation, ice freezes quickly and you get inclusions of impurities within the crystals. In the case of the ice trays, given that silicone has essentially zero thermal resistance (R-value), the water freezes from all sides towards the centre of the cube. All of the impurities are shoved into the centre until there is nowhere to go. Finally, the centre freezes, resulting in a mass of impurities and bulging fractures due to expansion. Since the Neat Ice Kit mold is insulated, with the exception of the top, the water freezes top-down. Heat is conducted up through the ice rather than through the insulated sides, resulting in unidirectional freezing. The insulation allows for slower freezing, promoting large crystal formation and driving impurities and gas (mostly air, I assume) down to the bottom of the mold.

Back to the chaos. I’ve filled both molds with the same water and placed them side-by-side in the freezer, removing them at the same time (about 24 to 48 hours later), and am consistently surprised and perplexed with the variation between the two ice bricks. Voodoo, I tell you. One thing remains constant; however, although I get close, I have yet to get the top half of the brick 100% perfectly clear.

The problem is streakies.

Streakies (that’s the technical term) appear to be air trying in desperation to escape from it’s chilly tomb. Like Han Solo as he was frozen in carbonite. The mass of impurities and trapped gases  looks more like an abominable dragon fruit or some sort of freaky sci-fi creature – nothing like the cute little cloud shown in Studio Neat’s sales materials. I suspect it comes down to local variations in water – things like mineral content. I’m not sure. Can water from one location contain more dissolved gases than water from another? Again, I don’t know. Damn it, Jim, I’m a mechanical engineer, not a water scientist! No mention of streakies appears on the Neat Ice website; however, once the kit arrives and you unbox it, you’ll notice a paragraph on the last page of the instruction card that states the following:

“While the white cloud should be below the halfway point on the ice
brick, some shafts of air, affectionately known as “streakies,” may broach
into the clear section. These are caused by dissolved oxygen in the water
and sometimes cannot be avoided, depending on water type and source.
They are actually quite beautiful though!”

Well, shit, that’s good to know after plonking down 80 bucks for perfectly clear ice. I don’t want nearly clear ice! I want beautifully clear ice! Disappointing, Dan and Tom – disappointing. What would your Mothers think? For maximum transparency (hahahrawrrahaha), I would suggest that they include this little tidbit of info on their website as well as a photo of the “streakies” phenomenon. And, no, they’re not “quite beautiful” – they’re splinters in my minddriving me mad. When I contacted Studio Neat they said that, “Making the ice still seems to be a bit of a black art.” That kind of blanket statement pretty well covers any problem someone could have with the kit, which I find somewhat dissatisfying.

In order to mitigate the streakies, I’ve experimented with a few different types of water:

  1. tap water; initial temperature (T0) ≈ 20°C (68°F)
  2. tap water filtered through a Brita filter (new filter); T0 ≈ 20°C (68°F)
  3. tap water, Brita filtered, heated to boiling, then allowed to cool; T0 ≈ 60°C (140°F)
  4. distilled water (via steam distillation); T0 ≈ 20°C (68°F)
  5. distilled water; T0 ≈ 60°C (140°F)

In each case, the mold was filled to the top of the insulation, placed in the same location within the freezer (measured to be -14.3°C/6.3°F) and allowed to freeze for the same amount of time (a full 48 hours; with my freezer, 24 hours isn’t sufficient to achieve complete solidification). The kit was then removed from the freezer, ejected from the insulation, the silicone mold peeled back, and the ice allowed to temper at room temperature (Note: it’s essential to allow the ice to warm up for 5 minutes or so before attempting to split, otherwise it is too cold and will fracture and chip rather than cut cleanly.)

In each instance, the kit was tilted and filled at a slow rate (similar to pouring a pint of draft beer) to reduce turbulent mixing that might introduce more air into the water. Dave Arnold suggests using water that has been heated to nearly boiling, then cooled down – hot water contains fewer trapped gases compared to cold or room temperature water, so I tried that for Tests C and E. (Don’t put boiling water in your freezer, it’ll defrost your freezer and ruin your food.) Finally, using a small spatula or other slender, straight-edged object, I (painstakingly) detached any visible air bubbles that were clinging to the side of the mold before placing the kit into the freezer.

The results can be seen below:

Paternal Drunk - Post 37 - Water Comparison A - S

Test A: Plain Ol’ Tap Water, Straight Up

Paternal Drunk - Post 37 - Water Comparison B - S

Test B: Brita-Filtered Water

Paternal Drunk - Post 37 - Water Comparison C - S

Test C: Heated Brita-Filtered Water

Paternal Drunk - Post 37 - Water Comparison D - S

Test D: Steam Distilled Water

Paternal Drunk - Post 37 - Water Comparison E - S

Test E: Heated Steam-Distilled Water

In an effort to facilitate comparison I have masked half of each block via Photoshop to properly judge and quantify the extent of impurities and air infiltrating on the top half of the ice brick (click to enlarge).

Paternal Drunk - Post 37 - Masked Comparison

After many trials and careful examination in contrast, I have the following observations:

  1. I’m a lunatic.
  2. The type of water that you use has a significant impact on ice clarity.
  3. Heated, Brita-filtered water produced the best and most consistent results.
  4. Distilled water has less impurities compared to tap/Brita-filtered water, but more dissolved gases, resulting in a smaller mass of impurities but significantly more streakies.
  5. Boiling the water appears to provide some degree of degasification, generally reducing presence/length of streakies.
  6. Removing the visible air bubbles with a straight edge is not worth your time.
  7. Although, not an official test result, there is no appreciable difference in results between steam distilled and reverse osmosis purified water.

I had high hopes for boiled-then-cooled distilled water – one would hypothesize that reduction of dissolved gases and impurities would yield the clearest ice possible. Quite the opposite. The boiled distilled water yielded the worst results – an insane bulging, fractured, grotesque abomination of nature, in fact. I can only imagine this was due to… witchcraft. I really have no hypothesis as to what could have caused this. And this result was repeatable – the same bizarre phenomenon occurred each time. Magic.

Other factors that may have adversely affected the clarity of the ice:

  • contaminants in kettle used to heat the water
  • soap residue in the ice mold
  • freezer temperature too cold
  • foam insulation in contact with frozen items within the freezer resulting in quicker conduction of heat out of water

I rinsed the kettle and ice molds fairly well before use in an effort to mitigate contaminants, but who knows. With respect to freezer temperature, I don’t think it was too cold – the manufacturer’s recommended temperature is -17.8°C (0.0°F) and the actual temperature was measured to be -14.3°C (6.3°F). As for the last point, the thermal conductivity of frozen food is much greater than that of air (approx. 2 W/mᐧK versus 0.023 W/mᐧK), i.e. heat transfer would occur at a much higher rate between the foam insulation and frozen food compared to the foam insulation and air. Generally speaking, nothing was leaning up against the insulation, so I don’t think this influenced the outcome too much – it wasn’t like I was wrapping bags of frozen peas around it. I suspect there are myriad imponderables that influence freezing rate that I will never know about.

Conclusion and Recommendation

In conclusion, the Neat Ice Kit produces the best ice for your cocktails, if your freezer space is limited. Also, the water used in making the ice has a significant impact on clarity – the concentrations of impurities and dissolved gases will determine whether a 100% clear cube can be achieved. I wish the guys at Studio Neat explicitly identified this potential issue upfront. I received the Neat Ice Kit as a gift, but I can imagine plonking down this kind of cash for cubes that are almost clear would be aggravating to say the least. It could be argued that perhaps not everyone is as picky as me when it comes to ice clarity, but why the shit would those people be buying a $60+ insulated ice kit?! Nah, target buyers of this kit suffer from a severe case ice OCD. That’s sorta the whole point.

If you have some freezer space to spare, my recommendation would be to use the open-topped cooler method. It produces a helluva lot of perfectly clear ice and at a fraction of the cost of the Neat Ice Kit. During the winter months here in Ottawa, I use this method, placing the cooler in my uninsulated garage. After a couple days and some careful ice sawing/chopping, I have a kajillion perfect ice cubes (stay tuned for a post on that).

But if you have limited space, can’t rely on below-zero outside temperatures, and have $60+ burning a hole in your pocket, the Neat ice cubes are hard to beat, streakies or no streakies.

Support this site by drinking a cocktail whilst reading. You can cheers me if you like. I’ll know.

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