NEW YORK – As New York City’s bar owners and mixologists strive for the perfect drinking experience, Shintaro Okamoto encourages them to consider an often-overlooked detail — the quality of the ice.
Okamoto, 43, founded his namesake ice studio in 2003 while still in graduate school for fine art at Hunter College. His early business focused on ice sculptures before he also began crafting specialty ice for cocktail bars.
“Back then, even with so many events happening in New York and the city always looking for new things, ice sculpture was not well-established,” says Okamoto, who was born in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Okamoto learned the art of ice sculpture from his father, Takeo, who was a trained sushi chef and moved the whole family to Alaska when Okamoto was 9. His father made ice sculptures as a side business, and even competed in some international competitions.
“I felt there were many possibilities in what my dad had been making,” Okamoto says. “I wanted to combine my fresh sensibility from studying art in New York with the sense of Japanese customer service I had from growing up in the restaurant business.”
The Okamoto Studio, located in the city’s borough of Queens, is equipped with three gigantic freezers that each produce a pair of 125-kilogram blocks of ice every four days during the summer. The ice comes out dense and perfectly clear, ready to be used for sculpture or trimmed to custom sizes and shapes for customers in the drink service industry.
Cooling a drink with a single piece of ice cut to the ideal dimensions, Okamoto says, reduces the surface area of the ice and therefore slows its melting while also preventing excessive dilution.
“Ice made with regular freezers comes out white and there are air bubbles in it,” he adds, noting that air in the ice increases the rate of melting. A whitish hue also detracts from the color of whiskey or vibrant cocktails.
Before Okamoto broke into this niche market in 2009, bartenders at some high-end establishments were already making their own ice in shallow pans, hoping to improve its clarity and quality. But the process was time-consuming and inefficient, as ice in the center of the sheets whitened while freezing and left only the outer edges usable.
Aided by the craft cocktail boom of recent years and the growing ranks of appreciative connoisseurs, Okamoto has landed clients among the city’s top-tier bars, hotels and restaurants. Meanwhile, the business continues to dedicate a large portion of its efforts to ice sculpture projects.
Okamoto’s portfolio includes artistic and commercial sculptures such as ice armor for a fashion shoot, a carved sports car for Porsche, and even an ice replica of the Empire State Building for a winter festival in Central Park.
“Working with something as ephemeral as ice makes us focus on the process,” says Okamoto. “People see that it melts away, and it makes the moment very precious.”