From Longfellow Pond to Morses Pond, Wellesley has a rich history in the ice business, with big blocks of the frozen stuff harvested back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some was used locally for refrigeration, while other blocks were shipped off via railcars. You can still see remnants of the Metropolitan Ice Company’s storage house at Longfellow Pond.
Working on a smaller scale these days in Wellesley is Michael Tobin, a high-tech and biotech executive. On the side for the past 3 years, he has been perfecting clear ice cubes that out-look, out-taste, out-clink and out-last regular cubes. The newfangled cubes are ideal for cocktails like the Old Fashioned and assorted stiff drinks, but can make even a glass of water or soda feel more special.
“Boiled water, filtered water, distilled water, double-boiled water, contraptions from Bed Bath and Beyond and Amazon…” he says, ticking off the methods and tools he tried before coming up with his current system.
Tobin low-key published his Boston Clear Ice website at the start of 2019, and officially launched the business last fall. He’s been doing the rounds in recent months and weeks with local businesses, demoing his ice side-by-side vs. whatever the business is using. Tobin cites Wellesley’s The Local and Fells Market, Newton’s Lower Falls Wine and Needham’s Cappella restaurant as being among early customers of Boston Clear Ice, which delivers in the greater Boston area.
“We are carrying Boston Clear Ice. And we actually sold out last night,” says Fells Market‘s Peter Katsikaris. “I have seen and had large single ice cubes
served in drinks at high-end restaurants in Boston. The cool thing about the Boston Clear Ice is that it is totally clear.”
A transparent business
While I don’t recall ever contemplating ice clearness, apparently those with more refined taste or clientele have been thinking about it a lot.
Tobin says he has noticed clear ice as long as he can remember, both in nature and restaurants or bars. He can’t unsee those perfectly cloudy cubes spit out by refrigerator ice makers.
“There are two kinds of people in the world,” says Tobin. “Those who think about clear ice and everyone else.”
Clear ice companies have popped up in New York, San Francisco and Sydney to meet the demand of that first set of people, and Youtube is littered with videos showing how to make your own clear ice cubes.
Tobin says one person, Fiji water bottle in hand, once asked about who would pay extra for clear ice…
“Craft beer. Craft cocktails. Craft vodka and bourbons. Craft mixers. Many people are paying for upgraded experiences while dining and drinking,” says Tobin, who isn’t shy about tossing around hashtags like #clearlybetter. “Not unlike the hotel industry where The Four Seasons, Sheraton Four Points, and Motel 6 all get you a bed for a night: What experience do you want and what do you perceive as value when you consume it?”
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Once Tobin informed me about his business I’ve started to notice the ice I’m served wherever I go and silently judge. Sure enough the cubes are usually cloudy or if clear, very small (though I do enjoy the ones with holes in them).
Boston Clear Ice cubes are chunky, either 2” x 2” x 2″ with a faceted finish perfect for a bourbon tumbler or longer and rectangular with a chiseled exterior, suitable for a Tom Collins glass. They make for conversation pieces at cocktail parties, says Tobin, who counts catering businesses among early customers.
The first clear cube I experienced was of the faceted variety. After I declined a serving of hard liquor, Tobin took cubes from a freezer bag in his kitchen fridge and plopped one into a simple glass of water, as his wife and oldest son begged me not to encourage him. But there’s no denying that the cube practically disappeared in the glass and immediately started to chill the water. It felt like a magic trick.
(Pro tip: Let the cubes sit for a few minutes before sticking them in drinks to avoid fracturing the ice.)
An hour and then 2 hours later that night, after the demo at his home, Tobin texted me to show that the cube was maintaining its form. I was able to rest easy.
Not magic, but proprietary
Tobin is keeping certain processes, including his freezing and finishing technique, proprietary. He’s also using special molds.
The water is Wellesley’s own, though it is filtered and goes through a reverse osmosis process before being “directionally” frozen like a lake or glacier, says Tobin, who as an officer of the Wellesley Conservation Council knows a thing or two about the outdoors. This creates a denser cube.
“In your freezer, your ice cubes are surrounded on all sides by the cold, and the air and impurities in the water get trapped in the center and cloud the cube,” he says. “Boston Clear Ice uses directional freezing and flushes out the impurities before they cloud the cube.”
It takes about 36 hours to complete a batch.
Getting clear ice to a point that was a “wow” moment for friends and family was one thing, Tobin says. But taking it to a level that would meet expectations of restaurants, bartenders, caterers and their customers was another thing.
Tobin acquired a new industrial-strength freezer for his cubes at the start of the year after selling out his product through the holidays. Boston Clear Ice is now cranking out up to 500 of these frozen jewels per week. The cubes go for about a buck apiece, depending on volume.
While local ice barons back in the day actually shipped their big blocks of ice all over the world, Boston Clear Ice is focused on the local market.
The early success of this self-funded venture has been accomplished by word of mouth, Tobin says. That seems only appropriate given the product.
This is not a sponsored post, though I have known Michael for years and thought this was a really interesting business story when he told me about it. Boston Clear Ice is offering The Swellesley Report readers 20% off their orders placed before Feb. 29. Just mention Swellesley20 at time of order. Send email to [email protected] or phone/text to 781.856.8183. A small order is 32 cubes for $39. Large order is 96 cubes for $99. $10 delivery charge to Wellesley and bordering towns. The standard format is 2x2x2-inch faceted cubes.