Rocks Don’t Melt, Nor Do Their Fans
Published: April 10, 2012
WHEN whiskey stones first showed up on store shelves five years ago, they seemed destined to be another fleeting oddity, perhaps an upscale version of the Pet Rock fad of 1975.
After all, it’s tough to persuade drinkers they need soapstone rocks — stored in the freezer — to chill their whiskey instead of ice, which eventually dilutes it. Purists think single malts should be savored neat or with a splash of water. The stones have never caught on in bars, either. “It’s idiotic,” said Dale DeGroff, a noted mixologist who is partial to Glenlivet 12 with big square ice. “You won’t see them at the bar unless they are making fun of them.”
Even so, the fad is proving remarkably resilient, and even expanding, with more than a dozen competitors promoting their unique artisanal twist. There are Sipping Stones and Chilling Rocks, and different sizes of cubes and disks, and one-upmanship over whose stones are the best.
“I have no idea what the counterfeiters would be saying to you, if they are being honest, other than ‘we copied that guy,’ ” Andrew Hellman wrote in an e-mail. His Teroforma Whisky Stones are cut and tumbled in Vermont by a bearded craftsman named Glenn Bowman, and are now sold by more than 1,100 retailers nationwide.
Some makers of soapstone countertops even turned to fashioning cubes for imbibers when their home-remodeling businesses slowed. In 2010, Barry Dresen of Brookings, Ore., started shaping scraps from kitchen countertops that his business installs into what he called Italian Ice. He sold imported soapstone for $16.95 for two bags of nine cubes on Amazon. Soon, his leftovers weren’t enough to keep up with demand, and he bought full slabs.
Last year, he started sourcing his soapstone from a quarry in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, changed the name to Ice Breaker, and increased the price by a dollar. “I sell a lot to military bases,” said Mr. Dresen, who dreams of giving up countertops in favor of making stones exclusively.
Jesse Billin of Chocorua, N.H., has already reached that goal. “I wish I had done this 20 years ago, and saved myself 20 years of chiseling stone on my knees,” he said. After decades as a high-end masonry contractor for multimillion-dollar homes, Mr. Billin began selling Hammerstone’s Whiskey Disks two years ago. He started making the disks, which resemble elegant hockey pucks, only for relatives. “It was a family thing,” he said. “No one thought we could sell these things.”
That was before Mr. Billin attracted more than 7,000 followers by tweeting bon mots like “Let your pour of whiskey be bigger than your fear” and posting ads to their Facebook pages that said, “Ice is the enemy. Defend yourself.”
Last December, Maker’s Mark even started selling hundreds of disks emblazoned with its brand in its bourbon distillery in Loretto, Ky., and online. Craft distilleries have shown interest in branded disks, too, including Chattanooga Whiskey, which plans to give them away at its debut party on Friday.
Joe Ledbetter, a co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey, said the disks are a bet on the future. “There’s a huge younger generation who don’t see whiskey as an old man’s drink; they see it as the new craft beer, and that’s the group just on the edge of buying whiskey disks really consistently,” he said.
But John Hansell, the editor of Whisky Advocate, a magazine for whiskey enthusiasts, said he had never heard anyone — not even his fishing buddies, who drink bourbon and ginger ale — complain, “Oh geez, there’s too much water in my whiskey.” And for experts, drinking Scotch at room temperature with a bit of water “is still the gold standard — that hasn’t jumped the shark,” Mr. Hansell added.
That said, plenty of well-meaning gift-givers are convinced that whiskey rocks are right for every hard-to-buy-for man like fathers-in-law, bosses or Mom’s new rebound beau who is coming for Christmas. Mr. Hellman often fills large orders for retirement communities, wedding parties, hedge funds and law firms, some of whom get specially monogrammed muslin bags.
“The phrase we’ve always used is, ‘Ice melts. Whisky rocks,’ ” Mr. Hellman said, adding that for custom orders, he replaces the word “whisky” with a company name.
Sparq Home even markets its soapstone for use in any liquor: “Anything you drink straight at low volume, since at higher volume, the cube will lose its ability to chill,” said Justin English, a founder of Sparq Home. Soapstone can also help keep liquids warm, he added. His site recommends microwaving the rocks, popping them in coffee to keep it warm for an hour.
It may be a stretch, given that a cup of coffee is a lot of liquid for stones to keep hot. Nevertheless, on Nov. 30, Woot, a daily deal site, sold nearly 50,000 sets of nine stones for $5.99 plus $5 shipping.