Nobody loves ice more than Americans. It’s a running joke, a quirk of the national personality: Iced drinks are as American as rock ‘n’ roll, pickup trucks and to-go cups.
Way back in 1895, Mark Twain wrote that ice had become so inextricably linked with the United States that “there is but a single specialty with us, only one thing that can be called by the wide name ‘American.’ That is the national devotion to ice-water.”
For years to come, all ice was good ice. But now it’s entering a new Gilded Age. Frozen water, which costs most Americans virtually nothing, is being redefined as a luxury item.
At fashion-brand parties, ice cubes stamped with the company’s logo are de rigueur. On tables at high-end weddings, fairy lights in Mason jars are out and wildflowers suspended in $14 ice cubes are in. TikTok creators routinely draw 30 million views overnight (and sizable paychecks) by showing off stocked ice drawers, along with retail links for buying specialty ice molds in all shapes and sizes. Then there’s the pinnacle of domestic opulence: a countertop ice maker that turns out the pebble-shaped “nugget ice” previously available only at fast-food chains.
“I have almost 75 ice molds,” said Kami Mehta, a TikToker who late last year started sharing the dozens of types of ice in her Florida freezer. Since then several other influencers have followed suit, drawing a huge audience: Ice isn’t just frozen water for your drink, it’s a blank canvas for your artistry.
“It’s amazing how many people are doing it,” she said of the videos. “You have to be creative now.”
We could have seen it coming. First there were the refrigerators that plop crescent ice out the front of the door (and often onto the floor). Then came the chic 1¼-inch cubes made with silicone molds. In cocktail bars around the country, “on the rocks” now means having your favorite spirit poured over an extra-large sphere or cube of ice, and cloudy ice in a cocktail may warrant a complaint.
In 2020, 51 percent of the 2,000 Americans polled by the appliance company Bosch self-identified as “ice obsessed.” Even more said that they wouldn’t drink water unless it was cold, and that if no ice was available they would simply drink less water.
As in so many arenas of culture, TikTok is leading the way. In the past year, #icetok, a hashtag with nearly 950 million views, has become a social media phenomenon. Videos posted under the tag include tutorials for making “powdery ice,” and the pouring of all manner of liquids into ice machines. (Say hello to hot-sauce ice, SpaghettiOs ice and, perhaps as an antidote, Pepto Bismol ice.)
But most popular among the TikTok genre is the subgenre of ice-drawer restock videos, which are themselves an offshoot of the strangely soothing #cleantok mania that swept social media through the pandemic. Restock videos, which show users decanting spices into jars and replenishing clear canisters with pantry goods, appeal to a large audience who crave organization or the comfort of repetition. The genre gets highly specific: guest bathroom restocks, coffee restocks and snack drawer restocks.
During the pandemic, “I think some people made sourdough and kimchi, and other people made ice cubes,” said Camper English, a cocktail writer and ice obsessive best known for introducing a technique for making crystal-clear ice to cocktail connoisseurs about a decade ago.
“I know there’s been a steady increase, but some switch flipped in the past six months,” Mr. English said. “I feel like it’s everywhere, particularly with those videos.”
Here’s what one ice restock video looks like: An empty freezer drawer slides open and a pair of hands, in this case belonging to Ms. Mehta, slides in plastic containers. Then 13 types of ice cascade into each bin. First, ice in spheres, tiny rectangles, large cubes and heart shapes. Then the colorful ice: cubes the size of ring boxes filled with slices of orange and lime; pink bricks of blended fruit ice for smoothies; creamy hazel-colored ice made with frozen coffee in the shapes of roses, pumpkins and bulldogs. The video, posted in September, has more than 17 million views.
Most of the tens of thousands of comments below the video fall into one of three categories: confusion (“Why do you have all this ice?”), joy (“The absolute serotonin this brought me”) and envy (“I think we are in different tax brackets”). Even for skeptical viewers, it’s an irresistible watch, tickling the A.S.M.R. corners of the brain. But unlike viral A.S.M.R. videos of wooden balls clacking in soup bowls or the supple crunch of Kinetic Sand, this one replays something every viewer is already familiar with: the sound of ice clattering in a freezer.
“It’s a fascinating thing that’s part of our daily life,” said Leslie Kirchhoff, the founder of Disco Cubes, a four-year-old custom ice company in Los Angeles. “And you can make it as exciting or as normal as you want.”
For Ms. Kirchhoff, ice presented itself as an untapped market for creativity. “Baby me had always wanted to be an inventor,” she said, “and that came rushing back when I realized nobody was doing anything cool with ice.” Under the Disco Cubes banner, she creates custom ice for brand-sponsored events and private parties.
After learning Mr. English’s method for making clear ice, Ms. Kirchhoff developed her own way of suspending objects — mostly flowers, produce and die-cut logos — in ice, a “pretty intense” procedure, she said, that “takes three very specifically timed steps over three days.” She closely guards her process, and charges a steep price: “The lowest we’ll go for floral spheres is $8 per sphere,” she said. For a suspended logo or a pricier flower, the tab starts at $14.
Americans have been commodifying ice for centuries.
“America has the oldest ice industry in the world,” said Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo who has published three books about the development of American refrigeration. The nation’s ice industry was begun in 1806 by Frederic Tudor, who “deliberately cultivated a market for ice — he would give it away to bars, then get people hooked on it, and sell it.”
By 1860, Dr. Rees said, Americans had developed a taste for ice year-round. Before the advent of freezers, ice was cut from ponds and lakes in colder regions and shipped to warmer climates, as far as Hawaii. By 1875, the ice man was a ubiquitous figure, going door-to-door to fill the iceboxes in “every house, from the richest to the poorest,” he said. Electric household refrigeration was perfected in 1925, and the advent of ice-cube trays quickly followed.
Today the same technology is still in use, but ice-making is evolving.
Many ice lovers, rather than buying dozens of molds or learning time-intensive techniques, are simply investing in more sophisticated appliances. In 2019, the South Korean electronics giant LG released a fridge equipped with a freezer that dispenses what the company calls Craft Ice, including cubed ice, crushed ice and clear spherical ice balls — allowing consumers to entertain, as the ads put it, “like a baller.”
Kristen Seninger, a marketing program manager in San Francisco, bought a General Electric Profile Opal Nugget Countertop Ice Maker almost five years ago, and gained a social media following as the self-proclaimed “pebble ice queen.” After G.E. “saw how viral my ice-maker stuff was going and how I would talk about it so frequently,” she said, “they gifted me the 2.0.” That model retails for nearly $700 and is a darling of #icetok.
“Tons of my followers have bought the ice maker because of my ice influence,” said Ms. Seninger, who receives a portion of the sales revenue made through her Amazon and LTK storefronts. So far, she has sold 200 of the appliances.
Dr. Rees, the historian, thinks there’s something distinctly American about splurging on ice. “We’re willing to spend on something that’s essentially free — that’s a sign that we value it.”
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