American cocktail bars have long had a fascination with the meticulous and elegant craft of Japanese bartending, incorporating some hallmark touches into their own drinks, including Japanese spirits, ingredients, tools and techniques. Now, rather than merely using Japanese-style ice, from clear cubes to hand-cut spheres, they’re going a step further by using ice shipped directly from Japan.
Shintaro Eleazar Tozzo of New York’s Bar Moga, a 1920s-style Japanese cocktail bar, was frustrated with the inconsistency of stateside-produced clear ice and wanted better options when he discovered Kuramoto Ice in 2021. Now, Bar Moga exclusively uses Kuramoto Ice in all its cocktails, in the form of custom-cut spears, diamonds and smaller pieces for stirring.
“I can noticeably tell the differences between the regular, American-made clear ice versus Kuramoto Ice,” says Tozzo, Bar Moga’s head chef and beverage coordinator; he waxes poetic about how the ice melts at a slower rate than other brands and doesn’t dilute the flavors of his cocktails.
Although clear ice isn’t anything new in the U.S., importing it from a whopping 5,500 miles away signifies a considerable escalation in the pursuit of ice clarity. It’s no longer good enough for ice to simply appear clear; it needs to be pristine, with minimal impurities and microbubbles. This level of purity is achieved through Kuramoto’s production process, which takes about a week from start to finish. The water comes from Mount Haku in Japan, an area known for its soft water. As Kuramoto freezes the water over 48 to 72 hours, a majority of the minerals are separated out, resulting in ice with an incredibly low level of hardness, at 3 to 4 parts per million (a measurement of mineral content), and barely any impurities. Microbubbles are removed through an extended agitation process, producing dense ice that melts slowly. The ice is cut to size in a refrigerated room to ensure consistent quality before it’s put in a flash-freezer overnight as a way to prevent the ice spheres, sticks and blocks from sticking together. The result is glass-like ice that doesn’t impart any flavors to the drinks as it melts.
Naoto Yonezawa founded Kuramoto Ice USA, Inc., a partner of Kuramoto Ice in Japan, in 2020. He had observed that Japanese bars were serving handcrafted clear ice in their cocktails well before American bars jumped on board, and that traditional Japanese bar owners typically purchased ice from local vendors rather than making their own. Although major Japanese grocery stores in the U.S., including Mitsuwa Marketplace and Nijiya Market, were already selling Japanese ice from large manufacturers who used a different production process from Kuramoto, Yonezawa saw an opening for him to partner with a smaller Japanese company to distribute luxury ice directly to bars and restaurants stateside. “I noticed that there were a lot of Japanese whiskies at nice bars, and I was like, ‘Why not ice?’” he says.
Yonezawa had experience with the logistics of importing food, including frozen products, so he knew that it would be possible to bring ice from Japan without a heavy carbon footprint by piggybacking on existing distribution networks. (Kuramoto Ice says its research shows its production process is four times more energy-efficient than the typical U.S. clear ice manufacturer.) Kazuhiko Kuramoto, Kuramoto Ice’s fifth-generation owner, whose family has been operating the business since 1923 in Kanazawa, Japan, also wanted to break into the U.S. market, so a partnership made sense. Kuramoto Ice now serves about 200 bar and restaurant clients stateside, including Kato and Damian in Los Angeles, Las Vegas’ Herbs & Rye and San Diego’s Juniper & Ivy. Bags of Kuramoto Ice’s Kachiwari cracked ice are also sold at Nijiya Market locations in California and Hawai‘i. Last October, Yonezawa expanded distribution to Australia and plans to enter the Canadian market soon.
U.S. bartenders using Kuramoto Ice each have their own reasons for embracing the product. Damian’s bar lead, Grace Pérez, says Kuramoto’s ice sticks fit perfectly in a Collins glass, coming right up to the rim. With less surface area touching the drink, the ice melts slower and the fizziness of carbonated highballs lasts longer. “We would rather import these ice sticks from Japan over getting something local … because they’re perfect,” says Pérez. “You can really tell that someone put a lot of care and attention to this beautiful ice stick.”
Beyond form and function, Kuramoto’s price point can be competitive in cities that don’t have as many local ice producers. When Marco Anaya was the general manager of Boston’s recently closed Drink, he found Kuramoto Ice to be two times cheaper than what he had previously found locally.
Though it’s easy to dismiss the practice of importing ice from Japan as unnecessary, especially when there’s no shortage of clear ice in the U.S., bartenders find real value in the quality of Kuramoto Ice. At Kato, where bar manager Austin Hennelly uses Kuramoto Ice in a variety of ways, including in a shaved-ice cocktail and hand-chipped for a tableside Old-Fashioned, he sees it as another ingredient that deserves respect. “Every sushi and kaiseki restaurant that is of a high quality in the United States ships fish from Japan because they want to get the best products to serve to their guests,” says Hennelly. “It’s worth it to get the best product, and other products should be no different.”
Hennelly, like Tozzo, had been dismayed by the inconsistent product from local vendors before incorporating Kuramoto Ice products into his drinks in 2022. “Naoto is someone, who, if there was a problem with the distribution company that they’re using, will personally deliver bags of ice so I have it for service,” he says. “That kind of customer service—he just cares about his product and his company and what he does—you can’t really beat that.”
Bartenders like Hennelly aren’t calling Japanese ice a requisite for every bar program, per se, but they do see good reason to embrace products that put quality first. “If people are running a good program and they’re presented with a higher-quality alternative for something,” says Hennelly, “they should adopt it if they care about quality.”