For years now, craft cocktail bartenders have obsessed over ice. Clear, oversized cubes, hand-carved perfect spheres and, for those invested in the theatre of it all, giant blocks that get taken apart with everything from old-fashioned ice picks to hacksaws. Cue the trend pendulum: Pushing back against the excesses of the ice age are people like Ryan Ringer, owner of the cocktail/vegan food spot Grey Tiger, in Toronto's Bloordale neighbourhood, where an entire section of the drinks menu is devoted to ice-free drinking, under the heading "Hotel Cocktails." They're made without ice and served at room temperature.
There's some historical precedent for this seemingly surprising new development, which got its legs in New Orleans at Arnaud's French 75 bar and spread from there to New York, Houston and select venues in Canada. "Drinking in this manner was very common until the end of the 19th century when it wasn't always easy to guarantee a reliable source of ice," says Ringer, referring to the era when ice came from lake harvesters, as opposed to machines. "But they say that the revival and the name 'hotel cocktails,' comes from contemporary bartenders, who are known to share pre-mixed cocktails with each other from a flask in hotel rooms when they're out of town at conferences like Tales of the Cocktail."
Ringer's most popular room-temperature cocktail, Walking Home Alone at Night, is a complex, spirit-forward drink made with whisky, Benedictine, honey and cacao, and served in a hand-blown glass flask – a nod to bartenders' drinking customs. People love the drink, in part, because of the vessel. But it's not just novelty and backlash that are driving the movement. Just as wine connoisseurs have been advising lately that white wine in restaurants is often served too cold for us to properly taste, cocktail bartenders, like Josh Pape of Vancouver's Wildebeest, points out that not every drink improves at a frosty temperature. "Like anything, our palate is better capable of interpreting aromas and subtler flavours when they aren't really cold," says Pape. "We're able to get a little bit more out of the drink that way."
This is more important for some cocktails than others, of course. Wildebeest chose to cut the ice from his Uppercut cocktail, a room-temperature drink made with peaty single malt whisky, vermouth and Calvados, because he thought it made it easier for patrons to taste the combination of delicate apple-brandy under the smoky scotch. At Grey Tiger, Ringer's Hotel Cocktails are his most complex and aromatic ones, typically made with base spirits like aged rum, single malt whisky or pisco – a grape distillate with a delicate character that gets repressed at excessively cold temperatures. Many of the other drinks at Grey Tiger are perfectly frosty.
"It's like the frying temperature of oils, in that you have to know which drinks taste better at different temperatures," Ringer says. "I wouldn't want to have a warm daiquiri or anything. That'd probably be pretty awful."