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Has Luxury Clear Cocktail Ice Gone Too Far?

Picture this: Your phone lights up with two back-to-back news alerts. The first is about glaciers in Greenland melting 20 percent faster than scientists previously estimated; the second is about a new startup shipping ice from Greenland’s 100,000-year-old glaciers to luxury cocktail bars in Dubai. You open Instagram to dull your panic, only to see Martha Stewart sipping an iceberg cocktail aboard a luxury Arctic cruise. You pull the covers back over your eyes and sleep until noon.

Together, these stories have unleashed a tidal wave of climate dread, and that new startup—Arctic Ice, co-founded by Greenlander Malik V. Rasmussen—has borne the brunt of the cyber fallout: When Rasmussen first announced the launch, social media commenters from around the world aired concerns that his company is accelerating climate change by tampering with glaciers. 

A couple points of fact-checking: The company claims it’s not actually taking glacier ice at all, instead harvesting free-floating icebergs that have already fallen into the Nuup Kangerlua fjord. Rasmussen assured TikTokers late last year that his team has been granted a rare permit from the government to take 14,000 tons of ice per year, roughly “0.00000005 percent” of the more than 250 gigatons of Greenlandic ice that fall into the ocean annually. He also told The Guardian that his goal is to support economic independence from Denmark, whose annual grant represents over half of Greenland’s budget. Representatives from Arctic Ice didn’t respond to Punch’s requests for comment.

Glacier ice aside, the cocktail revolution has ushered in a new ice age, with high-end bars willing to pay premiums for high-quality “clear” ice that looks cleaner and tastes purer than the cheap, mass-produced stuff. But as with any form of consumption, our lust for luxury can get out of hand. Cue the cargo ships packed with Greenlandic icebergs bound for the Arabian Desert 5,000 miles away. 

Luxury ice—whether harvested or manufactured—has steadily gained steam globally. In the U.S., demand for premium ice has been growing for years, starting in 2007 with Gläce Luxury Ice, which author and ice expert Camper English estimates was one of the country’s first specialty ice providers. A few years later, English himself developed a simplified method for creating clear ice, a technique that’s been used around the world. And in 2020, Naoto Yonezawa began importing clear ice from a factory in Kanazawa, Japan, to U.S. bars via Kuramoto Ice USA Inc., a partner of Kuramoto Ice

At Umami Mart, a Japanese barware store and tasting room in Oakland, California, co-owner Kayoko Akabori has regulars who come in just to buy bags of Kuramoto ice. Patrons can pay extra for a Kuramoto ice stick in their highball at the bar out back.

“People who really appreciate ice, the super cocktail-nerdy types, that’s definitely our customer base,” Akabori says. 

In Dubai, entrepreneur John Gillespie says interest in luxury ice is just beginning to crystallize. He’s been manufacturing clear ice for 40 of the city’s high-end restaurants and bars since 2022, when he founded Artisan Ice Co. Some hotels import ice through Swedish company iCY, which also distributes in Saudi Arabia. But despite Dubai’s growing cocktail scene—the city’s bars are regulars on “World’s Best” lists—Gillespie says there are few avenues for premium ice in the UAE. Many of the highly rated bars still get their ice from “backstreet vendors” who can provide a high volume of regular ice, on demand and cheap.

Since Arctic Ice’s first delivery to the UAE in early January, Gillespie doesn’t know of anyone who’s purchased it. He’s not convinced it will sell well, claiming that the “gimmick” might have appealed to “the old Dubai,” but the new Dubai has different priorities. 

“When I arrived here 15 years ago, it was all about bling, bling, bling, you know, seven-star hotels,” he says. But today, the city wants to “support homegrown businesses that are conscious of their footprint.” 

Relative to our other nasty habits, though, multiple experts agree that shipping a small amount of ice from Greenland isn’t likely to have much of an impact on the climate crisis. Climate scientist and sea ice expert Dr. Dirk Notz has speculated that Arctic Ice’s environmental impact is negligible. “The rapidly rising sea level is much more concerning than these people taking a bit of ice,” the professor told VICE

English agrees that the outrage is misplaced. “I can walk to the nearest corner store and buy single-use plastic bottles of water from my choice of France or Fiji, and no one’s screaming about that,” he says.

But some in the industry, including Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda, feel passionately that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Her Brooklyn bar uses ice from a manufacturer in nearby Queens. Whether it’s ice or Perrier water, the luxury shipping market is “insane,” she says.

Mix referenced the hospitality industry’s newfound embrace of biodegradable materials behind the bar, saying it would be absurd to sip a cocktail made with imported ice through something like an agave fiber straw. “That makes no sense,” she says.

Still, even if they’re using locally made ice, the average bar in the U.S. relies on a steady stream of imports, from citrus to international spirits. Dr. Notz admitted that it does sound “completely insane to transport ice cubes across the globe,” but ultimately concluded that it’s the cumulative effect of our “insane” behavior that’s warming our planet, not the actions of one startup. But will our search for the highest-quality cocktails, at whatever cost, end up costing the planet?

English revealed that he has tried glacier ice, and no, it wasn’t memorable because of the look or taste, but because of what had potentially been trapped in that ice for thousands of years. For him, the possibility of “breathing wooly mammoth air” when it melted in his drink was as good a thrill as any.

“It was awesome,” he recalls. “No regrets.”

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