Sunday, September 10, 2006

Chill pills

Burger King was recently sued in California for not warning customers about the potential risks of eating meat that’s been broiled over flames, a process presently being scrutinized for health risks. What’ll be the next concern to preoccupy the public? Sunshine?

Try water.

From here and there come indications that persnickety consumers are thinking heatedly about that most basic of pours—not just to avoid the slim threat of contamination, but because H20 represents an opportunity to promote wellbeing, like everything else they eat (from Whole Foods), drink (pomegranate-based, please), or do (drive their Prius to a spa, where they’re bake in a seaweed wrap). Standard tap issue, or even a bottled mass-market brand, just isn’t loaded with enough positives. But ice melt from a glacier, perceived to be as pure as angels’ tears, is another matter. Ditto for cubes made from water that could best be described as having a pedigree. Maybe it came from purified rainwater, or was taken from a spring, frozen, and sealed in an airtight container, all without being touched by the walking petrie dishes known as humans. Some of the suppliers are already talking about enhancing their water rocks with vitamins.

They may blast common ice and the purported detriments to health and flavor it poses, but they’re certainly willing to embrace old-guard marketing techniques. The alternatives to the mundane output of commercial ice makers have been christened designer ice, and priced accordingly, at about a dime a cube.

Right now, it’s still a novelty, largely limited to specialty retailers and presumably the kind of nightclub club where you wait outside behind a velvet rope. But is there any doubt it will arrive at a certain echelon of restaurants before long, satisfying patrons who fear they’ll fall out of the avant-garde, into the dreaded class of the merely trendy?

It may take awhile for the public’s interest to reach that point, but there’s already pressure building to use something better in a drink served on the rocks. NRN consumer insights editor Erica Duecy recently returned from Tales of the Cocktail, a relatively new conference that brings together cocktail enthusiasts from both sides of the bar. The restaurateurs there, Duecy reported, compared notes about how to meet mounting demand for harder ice delivered in more functional shapes, with the completely neutral tate that makes them an ideal complement to super-premium spirits or the cocktails made with them.

Think about it: If we’d told you three years ago that flavored foam and similar touches of food chemistry would be all the rage within fine-dining, you’d suggest a first-hand look at continuing-care feeding, from the patient’s viewpoint. And now that’s one of the driving forces behind the high-end sector. It’s already trickling down to lower-priced places through flavored sprays. Might this be something that hits the broad market even faster?

Makes you want a scotch on glacier ice.

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