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July 29, 2014

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If your ice tastes of frozen meatloaf, will your bourbon cry?

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Disclaimer: This photo may or may not depict cubes made by members of the International Packaged Ice Association. Their cubes are said to be flavorless, with great clarity and extra coldness going into the glass.

Desperate for a drink after a brutal day, you reach for the ice that’s been lurking in the freezer since you moved into your apartment (its unassuming tray more like a tomb in an alien horror movie). It probably won’t hurt you, but it might taste like meatloaf and old blueberries. That is not what you want mingling with your good bourbon.

And yet, I never think much about the quality of my ice, especially at home. Out on the town I just assume that the cubes in my water glass—and in my $20 cocktail—are premium. I expect them to be held to the same standard as the beverage they’re chilling. But Jane McEwen breaks it to me. Not all ice is created equal.

“You think about your water, but you don’t think about it in frozen form,” she says.

McEwen is executive director of North America's International Packaged Ice Association. Yes. There is one. And it dates back to 1917, when it formed to regulate the block ice industry, which, once upon a time, was one of the biggest sectors of manufacturing in the U.S.

“Back in those early days it was called the National Ice Association. And that’s before mechanical ice production came into being, when they were pulling ice out of the lakes in the north and shipping it down south. It was huge business. Huge, huge business,” McEwen says, adding that the industry has dramatically shifted from the heyday of 300-pound blocks. Her own family was in the business in Tampa, Florida, back in the ’40s, and when the home refrigerator came about they thought their operation was doomed and sold. But something stayed in McEwen’s blood, and after graduating from college and working with computers, she ended up joining a company that makes ice merchandisers for 16 years. For the last 15, she has been at the helm of the IPIA.

Needless to say the woman knows ice, which she and the IPIA call “the forgotten food.”

“We say ice is the forgotten food because in the event of a contamination outbreak, the officials investigating the outbreak are focused on the high profile foods: Did they eat hamburger? Did they eat chicken recently? Or is it the eggs? Or is it the spinach? Ice is not even on the list to be thought about,” she says, recalling an incident in the late ’80s involving 5,000 people at a University of Pennsylvania football game falling ill from contaminated ice. It was discovered as the culprit only after everything else was tested. “I know some people think because it is frozen water it can’t harbor bacteria. … E. coli, for example, in the manufacturing process or in the water supply itself, that E. coli is going to be in a frozen state," she says. "It’s not going to die.”

That’s why the IPIA imposes such stringent standards on its members, comprising 80 percent of the continent's commercially produced ice. McEwen says “commercially produced” doesn’t refer to small outfits (some campgrounds, convenience stores, liquor stores, hotels, restaurants, etc.) that make and bag their own ice under unknown, unsupervised conditions. What’s an ice-neophyte to do?

“As far as the retailer and the consumer are concerned, we’re advocating to look for our trademark logo on that package of ice. Because that’s going to be the seal of approval that it comes from a manufacturing facility that has met some very strict sanitation standards to produce that product,” McEwen says. “On the regulatory front, we’re advocating at the federal and the state level for fair and consistent standards for all packaged ice manufacturing. We know we’re doing it. But we’re not so sure and we highly doubt that convenience store down the road that’s scooping it in the back room and putting it in a bag and putting a twist-tie on it and selling it to the consumer—we don’t think they’re meeting the sanitation standards they should be meeting.”

I ask if Strip properties use the IPIA’s cubes, and she explains that they’re on the kind of scale that warrants in-house ice production, which she assumes is high quality given Clark County’s reputation for food safety enforcement.

“We would sure hope they’re using some ultra-filtration systems, and I would think some of the larger venues probably have some fairly good-size ice machines where they might even be doing some reverse osmosis, which absolutely would purify the ice. That would be ideal,” she says. “You don’t want that ice to have any kind of odor, obviously, certainly not compared to the ice that you get out of your freezer at home that has absorbed all of the odors of the food and is cloudy no matter how much you filter it. That is what could impart a taste to a fine liquor.”

As for the IPIA’s claims in a recent press release that its product is “colder, has better clarity and shape, and is completely flavorless” compared to the average cube, McEwen says the temperature is about the dryness of the packaged cubes, and the clarity and flavor are results of the immaculate manufacturing process. But is there a perfect shape when it comes to the melt factor?

“You know the bars in New York, the bartenders are coming up with some of these fancy shapes. For that $100 martini I guess you need something,” she says, laughing. “But the perfect science of the ice cube that melts the slowest so it won’t dilute your fine drink has always been quite the debate.”

Someone who knows and cares this much about ice must be picky. But McEwen still has her complimentary beverage on flights (adding that most airlines stock the IPIA’s frozen goods). And dinner parties—repeat offenders with refrigerator ice?

“They normally ask me to bring the ice. They know I won’t drink the ice in the freezer. Don’t even try that," McEwen says. "That’s the worst ice imaginable.”

If you’re eager to know if the ice you typically buy would pass muster with her, check the bag or stay tuned for a digital database. While the IPIA’s current website lists member producers, an impending redesign will break down their retailers, too. Cheers to that.

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