Damien Liot and his team at Bare Bones Ice Company are putting the best possible ice into Sydney's best bars. Here's how they do it.
Ice. You have some in a tray in your freezer at home, most likely. You’ve probably been to buy bags of the stuff at a bottle shop or service station. It’s not a big deal. It’s frozen water, right?
Right. Unless it’s not that simple.
Visit the best bars in Sydney, or any city for that matter, and order an Old Fashioned and chances are, you’re getting that drink served in a rocks glass. Within that glass sits a big, beautiful block of ice. Maybe it’s an ice sphere — a crystal clear ball of ice — if you’re getting fancy.
And if you’re getting that drink in Sydney, then there’s a very good chance it’s coming from one company: Bare Bones Ice Company.
“We sell water — that’s what we do,” says owner Damien Liot.
Bare Bones makes crystal clear, hard, and perfect cubes of ice. Sometimes they make longer, rectangular blocks. Sometimes they sell smaller cubes, or bags of crushed ice. They deliver them to Sydney’s best bars: you’ll find Bare Bones Ice Company in Maybe Sammy, Cantina OK!, Double Deuce Lounge, and many more of Sydney’s top end drinking destinations. Here’s where you won’t find them: your local bottle shop (at least not yet), and you’ll never find them at the service station.
“Everything is from the tap, we use Sydney tap water,” says Liot. “There’s nothing magical about it, we’re not in a place where we need to have a crazy filtration system legally. We do filter the water, it’s just a carbon filter, very similar to what you’d have in a restaurant.”
The clarity of the ice is what strikes you first — there are diamonds out there less clear than this (and a lot more expensive). Then if you swirl the liquid in your class about, and drain the drink, you’ll notice the next thing about this ice: it’s still there. It hasn’t melted away.
That’s precisely why Liot started Bare Bones Ice Company in the first place.
“The name Bare Bones Ice isn’t just a gimmick, it actually means something — [ice is] one of the bare bones elements of the drink industry,” he says.
“With this ice, as clear as it gets, it’s physically beautiful. But it is also a block that will last longer, because the freezing process has pushed all of the impurities and air bubbles out of the ice completely. So it will take longer to melt.
“If you’re buying a cocktail for $23, $25 and there’s quality, premium booze in it, you’re going to want to sip on it a while and with [our] ice in it you can.”
So how does it get so clear? Try freezing water at home, and you’re not going to get results like this — not without some serious research and technique.
Bare Bones Ice Company uses regular Sydney tap water, with some regular filtration to remove the chlorine and other particles from the water.
The water then freezes slowly, in a contraption called a Clinebell. It takes four days for one huge block of ice to form; when they do, the result is crystal clear ice. It is hard and dense and the block would take around three days to fully melt, Liot says.
He used to buy refurbished Clinebells delivered from the USA, but due to the difficulty of getting them here — and the travails of dealing with Australian customs processes — Liot now builds them himself.
“The shipping might take two months or three months, so after the fourth one we started building them here,” Liot says.
“It’s not about the money, it costs about the same — but if I need a machine in two weeks, I can build it.”
The big frozen blocks are lifted out of each Clinebell with a crane, before they’re cut into user-friendly blocks with a chainsaw and bandsaw setup.
Starting a couple of years ago, Liot knew there was a market for quality ice because his previous life was as a bartender in some of Sydney’s best bars, like The Baxter Inn and Restaurant Hubert.
“To me I was never the guy as a bartender who would be creative at making new drinks,” he says. “What I was passionate about was the consistency of the service and delivering the same quality every time.”
“It’s also the way we do things, in the Bare Bones way,” he says. “For example, there’s no gold flake in Bare Bones ice. It’s not what we do.
“Maybe one day we’ll develop an ice sculpting department but I want to keep it simple, straightforward and affordable, with consistent service — as good as we can get it.”
Two years in, you can expect Liot to keep refining his process and looking for way to make his perfect cubes even more perfect. “It’s been a couple years of hustle,” Liot says.
“I can tell you, from the perspective I am at now — I was crazy at the time I started it. Not in the sense that this couldn’t be done. But I had no money — I was a bartender. I got a personal loan. I bought two machines, I got this warehouse, and I had no money — I was fucking crazy.
“It was a huge risk at the time, if something had gone wrong, I would have gone bankrupt straight away. But it worked out in the end,” he says.
So, if Liot knew then everything he knows now, would he still start the business?
“Oh, absolutely,” he says.