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The History of Iced Beverages

How ancient empires risked everything for refreshing iced drinks

April M. Short

The history of iced drinks goes way, way back. While we can casually plunk some chunks of ice from the freezer into our iced MUD\WTR lattes to quell summer heat, people once went to great lengths—even risking their lives—for those iced bevvies. 

There's anthropological evidence showing ancient Persians, Romans, Chinese and Mesopotamians all liked to put ice or snow in their water, and wine—so don't throw your mom any more shade over those ice cubes in her chardonnay. It turns out she's upholding an ancient tradition.

Ancient Persian cultures created architecturally complex and exacting dome structures in the desert called yakhchāl that worked as evaporative coolers—in other words, ancient refrigerators—to make and store ice in the desert at least as far back as 400B.C.E. Sometimes they created enough ice in the structures to take ice baths (MUD/WTR is really into cold-plunging. You can learn more about how to start enjoying your own cold ice baths here). And, there is even a rumor—and some documentation—that when Alexander the Great conquered the city of Aornus in what is now Pakistan, he had more than two dozen ice pits dug out and sealed just so he could—you guessed it—enjoy iced drinks... as he went around oppressing cultures through military escapades. 

The Romans were particularly into iced drinks—or at least we know more about their use of ice than most cultures because they were also particularly into documenting every little thing they ate, drank and thought about (sound familiar?). According to an article by historian Sarah Bond published in Forbes in 2016, ‘[i]n the Greco-Roman context, ice and snow were less a preservative for foodstuffs than a means to make drinks cooler. There is evidence for ancient ice pits dug into the ground for the purpose of retaining ice.” And, she writes that Greeks and Romans had in-house wine coolers—or at least archaeologists have found “cellars in their houses that were used to store cool beverages like wine.” Ancient Chinese and Mesopotamian cultures also had  ice pits and ice houses built for the purpose of sipping on something cold.

According to Bond, the ice fad really bugged the Stoic philosopher Seneca in the first century CE in Rome. Apparently, Seneca was talking smack “on the fad of dropping lumps of snow and ice into one’s cup, complaining that ‘nothing is cold enough for some people—hot dishes and snow drinks.’” Bond also writes that “large imported fish and oysters served on a bed of snow and ice that was brought from Italian mountaintops such as Sicily's Mount. Etna was a staple of swanky households at the time.”

But ice was not easy to come by, so it was a status symbol of the ancient rich and famous. As Bond writes, “...you had to prepare well ahead of time in order to serve ice to guests in the ancient world. The Roman bureaucrat Pliny the Younger was incensed that a gentleman whom he invited to dinner never showed up. He wrote him a letter to let him know that he would be charged for the pricey snow that had been ordered just for him.”

Early modern popularizations of ice were no less snooty. Early ice storage structures In pre-industrial Europe were oftentimes only enjoyed by the elites, and attached to castles, monasteries, and the like. Starting around the 16th century, European nobility and wealthy people built ice houses to store ice gathered on their estates in the winter—but the trend became a craze. 

While ice remained a status symbol for the nobility and the wealthy for some time, more and more people began to demand access to iced drinks, and obtaining ice became an industry unto itself in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Collecting ice on one’s local estate quickly morphed into what we’ll call the Big Ice industry. The industry came complete with an international Ice Trade and ice miners, many of whom died or were injured in the name of obtaining ice—initially via hand saws—from mountain lakes and hauling large chunks of ice across continents and overseas. 

Eventually, people started to use horse-drawn machinery to cut bigger chunks of ice out of lakes, which still wasn't safe or easy by any means. People in cities eventually grew accustomed to iced bevvies on hot days and the ice industry grew and expanded out to the commons. Over time, and spurred on by the implementation of electricity, harvested ice was slowly replaced by ice made in factories. This was pretty big business as more and more people came to expect iced drinks as part of everyday life in the summer. 

Soon, in-house ice boxes were a must-have in the home, storing large chunks of ice that you'd chip away at to ice your drinks. Some of the elders still alive today remember ice boxes and chipping their ice into drinks this way because it wasn't until the 1930s and 40s that electric refrigerators became popularized and freezers were able to store ice indefinitely. 

Wild to think how now all we have to do to enjoy a cold drink is either crack that ice tray or casually push that lever on the ice machine on the fridge, and enjoy our perfectly sized cubes (or crushed ice if that's your jam) on the regular. What a cool journey.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist, and documentary editor and producer. She is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor.  Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, LA Yoga, Pressenza, the Conversation, Salon and many other publications.

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