Hand Carved Ice: A Religious ExperienceJanuary 28, 2016
Francis Hasegawa, co-owner and Whiskey & Spirits Concierge of Lit Manila, is standing behind his bar with a small cleaver in his hand. He starts telling me a tale from his past as a teenager working in a bar in Ginza: one of their regulars brings in a box of ice from Antarctica and the entire watering hole, filled with partially intoxicated working men and executives, is in awe. Francis breaks his monotonous tone and calm demeanor as he tells me, “How many thousands of years was this frozen? Maybe even millions? I felt that I couldn’t even touch it, like it was sacred.”
But it’s just ice, I think quietly. He is, after all, still holding the cleaver and I thought it best not to question. Sacred though? I don’t think there’s a religion that worships frozen water even if it’s a thousand years old—although there is a church made out of ice way up in the mountains of Romania. On the other hand, ice is cheap and readily available in Manila so it was interesting for me to meet someone who is so obsessed with it.
Lit Manila is one of the few places that hand carves all of their ice. They do so thanks to Hasegawa’s passion for quality gems—and the fact that our water isn’t up to par with Japanese standards. He is humble when he speaks of whiskey, in spite of his encyclopedic knowledge about the drink. What he is proud about is his sensitive palate towards water, and he maintains his judgement that ours still retains the chemical taint brought about by industrialization. So driven by necessity, and working with what’s available, the bartenders at Lit now carve their ice from enormous blocks, similar to the kind they haul in fish markets. Well, that wasn’t very reassuring.
Sensing my concern, Hasegawa shifts our discussion to purity. He elaborates that while they purchase entire blocks, the bartenders only use less than half of it. Like mining for gems, they chip away the cloudy areas, leaving only pure, crystal clear, shoebox-sized blocks. He calls these remnants impurities and claims that tube ice is mostly comprised of that. Although I would assume that these opaque pieces are caused mostly by improper freezing techniques; it’s obvious once you start hacking away at tube ice, when they stick together, forming a puny attempt at dissuading you from putting another piece in your drink, taunting you, “How are you going to fit all of us in your glass now, buddy boy?” Still, the clear ice, Hasegawa firmly assures me, is cleaner than tube ice. I have no way of proving it so I simply put my faith in him.
I peer over the bar to see a hangiri holding a clear block of ice which, after the absence of hands, has formed a layer of frost. It’s from here that the guys from Lit start working away to create the different shapes suited for each glass, like reverse-tailors forming bodies for suits that had already been made. A tap here. A chip there. Now the glass fits you perfectly, Mister Ice. Shall I pour some whiskey on you now?
Each shape corresponds to a certain container. Highball glasses require rectangular box shapes, while rocks glasses are fitted with spheres. The reason for this geometric shape sorting is simple: maximizing volume. While the clear ice already takes longer to melt, giving it shape allows it to melt evenly and maintain a constant temperature, which in turn reduces the chances of the drink ending up watered down. It’s these little things we often fail to consider because establishments seldom pay attention to ice, which is merely a practice meant for nothing more than keeping our drink cold.
Hasegawa then hits me with a hard one. “Let’s say you have your own bottle of Yamazaki 18. You can drink it at home and it’s cheaper, even if it costs you $300 to get one bottle. So you just buy ice from a convenience store and that’s it?” The imagery hits my mind. Yes, that would be sad. Sadder even since I would most likely be drinking by myself. And while I contemplate on this, he generously fixes me my own shot of Yamazaki 18. He begins by carving an ice sphere with his cleaver, repeating the words his master taught him, “Imagine a circle in the rectangle.” Then his stoic face looks at the ice and he begins chopping away, tiny ice particles flying in every direction. Three minutes later he’s done. He places the ice in a Baccarat glass, which resonates a distinct clink inside the crystal, and spins it like a prayer wheel. I’m mesmerized. He then pours the whiskey and then ritualistically slides the drink over to me. At that moment, I realize how silly this would all look if he did that with cylindrical pieces of ice, how his was such an integral part not only of the drink but of the presentation of the drink as well. Then a blasphemous thought enters my brain. How about some of this in a glass of soda?
Slightly inebriated, I can see where Hasegawa gets his appreciation for ice. He openly admits that he wants people to copy him, going as far as declaring that he’s willing to teach them if they ask—to spread the good word, so to speak. I start to feel indoctrinated when he tells me, “That appreciation for ice, you don’t have to pray to it, you know, but ice does many wonders.” I take a sip of my drink one more time and look at the humble preacher behind the bar. Amen, Mr. Hasegawa. Amen.