What Exactly Does One Do With a $500 Nugget Ice Machine?
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Photos by Claire Lower
If you are a fan of nugget ice, also known as “Sonic ice” or “that good ice,” then I have some fairly exciting news for you. Thanks to the brilliant minds at FirstBuild, you can now get your teeth on some without having to leave your very comfortable home. The counter-top ice make is called The Opal, and it’s pretty sleek.
If you’ve never had nugget ice before and don’t quite get what all the fuss is about, the appeal of nugget ice lies in its small size, its soft, crunchy texture, and its“flavor-absorbing” ability. It has a serious, almost cult-like following, with enthusiasts claiming it makes almost any drink better. We’ll get to all the boozy (and non-boozy) liquid fun in a moment, but first let’s talk specs.
The Opal has one job: to make that good ice, and it does that job pretty well. It has a single switch—which toggles between the “cleaning” and “ice” settings—and one button. That button not only turns the machine on and off, but also has an indicator light to let you know if the Opal is making ice, going through a cleaning cycle, or if it’s in need of an H2O refill.
It’s easy on the eyes and easy to use. Getting the thing set up—from un-boxing to the that first, glorious, frozen pellet—took a little over an hour. I know you probably have a lot of other questions, so I’ll ask them for you:
How much does it cost? A lot. The Opal Nugget Ice Maker costs $499, which is on the high-end of home kitchen appliances. (That’s more than a Kitchenaid stand mixer and Anova precision cooker combined, to put that in “fancy kitchen toys.”)
How much does it weigh? The Opal weighs 44 pounds.
How much space does it take up? The Opal is 10.5 inches wide, 15.5 inches deep, 17.25 inches tall. I don’t have a very big kitchen, but I was able to find a space for it on top of a built-in.
How much noise does it make? A good bit. Usually it’s a gentle whirring sound but sometimes it makes a much angrier, growlier noise that wakes me up because I live in a studio apartment with no physical separation between my bedroom and my kitchen.
How much good ice does it make and how long does it take to make that much ice? Once on, it takes the Opal about 15 minutes to produce the first nugget. From there, it makes a pound of ice per hour, and can hold 3 pounds at a time. Once it’s full it will shut itself off until you take a scoop or two, at which point it will go right back to making your good ice.
How much can it make in a day? You could probably extrapolate this yourself from the above information, but the Opal can make 24 pounds of ice in a 24-hour day.
Is the ice exactly like Sonic ice? These nuggets are a little longer than the ice you’ll get from Sonic—I don’t have a Sonic near me to show you a visual side-by-side, but I’d estimate that the Opal nuggets are about 30% longer than the Sonic nugs. They are, however, just as fun to chew on.
Does it keep the ice frozen? Left in the bucket, the ice will slowly melt back into the reservoir, and that melted water becomes fresh nugget ice.
How often do you have to clean? For the best tasting ice, you should clean the Opal once a week. In typical me fashion, I’ve only run mine through a rinse cycle once during its month-long stay in my home. I think the ice tastes just fine still. (Don’t be like me though.)
Can you hook it up to the plumbing? No, it’s stand-alone unit, and you have to refill the reservoir by hand.
Alright, now that we’ve got all the boring details out of the way, let’s talk about some drinks.
Nugget ice isn’t the right ice for every cocktail, but it works well in a lot of boozy beverages. The drinks that play best with nugget ice are those that can stand up to, or are improved by, a bit of dilution. (Anything fruity is an instant winner.) Avoid drinks that are usually served up (i.e. without ice in the glass)—like Manhattans and martinis—and anything that’s already fairly dilute, such as spritzers or aperitifs with soda water. As with anything though, personal preference comes into play. Though some may find this horrifying—and I’m breaking my own rule—I think a Negroni over this kind of ice would be downright delightful in the summer months.
In terms of entertaining, this thing greatly simplifies the at-home cocktail party, especially if you’re a fan of crushed ice cocktails. Not only does nugget ice make super pretty drinks, but it saves you the trouble of having to mess with a mallet, and it produces a much more uniform piece of ice than anything you could crush yourself. It’s not an ideal candidate for shaking or stirring—as its small size would cause everything to dilute too quickly—but that’s what makes it so great for building cocktails right in the glass. Just pour your ingredients in, add your ice, give it stir, and you have a perfectly diluted and chilled beverage ready to be enjoyed. I’m lucky enough to live in a town that is densely populated with excellent bartenders, and was able to convince cocktail master and ice enthusiast Nicolas Flower of Teardrop Lounge to help me come up with three fantastic cocktails to share with you.
A Most Refreshing Mint Julep
2 1/4 ounces of bourbon
1 teaspoon simple syrup
12 or so mint leaves.
Add mint leaves and simple syrup to julep cup and press gently with a muddler. Add bourbon and pebble ice. Give everything a stir, top with more ice, and garnish with your prettiest mint sprig.
A Perfectly Not-Too-Sweet Pina Colada
1 ounce aged rum and 1 ounce light rum, or literally 2 ounces of any rum you like.
3/4 ounces fresh lime juice
1 1/2 ounces pineapple juice (juice your own for extra credit)
1 1/2 oz blend of Coco Lopez and cream of coconut (If you like a really sweet pina colada, you can omit the cream of coconut and use straight Coco Lopez; I like around two parts Coco Lopez to one part cream of coconut.)
Pour it all in a glass with some pebble ice, give it a stir, and top with more pebble ice. Garnish with a pineapple wedge or whatever makes you happy. Put a fuckin’ umbrella in there. (Those last two sentences come are unedited instructions from Mr. Flower.)
A Very Beautiful Bramble
2 ounces of gin
3/4 ounces of fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounces of simple syrup
Add the first three ingredients to one glass, and muddle blackberries in another glass. Pour a little bit of the cocktail into the glass with blackberries and stir it up with a bar spoon (really, any long spoon will do). Pour the blackberry mixture into a tall glass, top with pebble ice to fill 3/4 of the glass. Pour the rest of the cocktail over the ice and top with more ice. Garnish with a blackberry.
Ethanol isn’t the only liquid that benefits from glorious frozen pellets of water. A tall glass of Mexican Coke is gloriously chilled and refreshing over the nugs and, when you’re done enjoying your soda, you have a glass of delicately cola-flavored, crunchy pellets to enjoy. The same applies to iced coffee and tea, particularly creamier, sweeter options like iced mochas or Thai iced tea. Lemonade is a good choice to, or you can take a page from Sonic’s book and make a cherry limeade. To be honest, chilling a cherry limeade is the highest purpose nugget ice can serve.
Drink your dessert.
In terms of whether all of this justifies the price tag, that all depends. If you don’t drink a lot at home, don’t entertain, and don’t like chewing on soft pellets of ice, this obviously isn’t the appliance for you—because it’s a $500 ice maker. I’ve driven cars that cost less than that. If however, you’re very into crushed-ice cocktails, love entertaining, and are obsessed with that good ice, the Opal should probably be on your “dream kitchen” wishlist.
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