It's Weird That American Restaurants Serve Ice Water In Winter

But why do we even have ice in our drinks in the first place?

“222 Words” is a series that gives you 222-word explanations to the questions that would normally get lost in a day’s news cycle. Read them while you’re bored at work.


Ice in drinks is not a thing outside of the United States.

Unlike in American restaurants, where waters and sodas are typically served in glasses full of ice, such a practice is considered strange in much of the rest of the world.

When the water outside is frozen there is no need for icy drinks.
When the water outside is frozen there is no need for icy drinks.

In winter, especially in a record-breaking cold one, the practice seems even more bizarre.

On New Year’s Eve at a restaurant in New York City ― when it was around 10 degrees outside ― my table kept getting served more and more ice water.

This kind of thing is not a real problem, but definitely seems weird.

And so I decided to look into it.

The "Ice King" looking chill.
The "Ice King" looking chill.

In the 1800s, Frederic Tudor, who came to be known as the “Ice King,” developed a system for harvesting and distributing ice more affordably.

As Epicurious describes, he’d also give hospitality businesses free ice until these establishments’ customers began to expect it in their drinks, thus creating a market.

The cool job of ice harvesting.
The cool job of ice harvesting.

But Tudor ultimately wasn’t successful in getting the ice in drinks concept to take off permanently outside of America, for reasons that are, unfortunately, still debatable.

Smithsonian Magazine posited theories for why this didn’t take hold, such as, “Europeans see ice as taking up valuable real estate in the glass.”


Exactly why Americans like their icy drinks has essentially become ... a cold case.


For more on this subject:

-Henry David Thoreau was strangely one of the first famous observers of the rise of the American ice trade. He documented watching ice harvesting in his 1854 book, “Walden.”

“Thus it appears,” Thoreau wrote, “that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well.” That “well” being the now famous Walden pond. You can read more about that connection at History.

Epicurious did a detailed history of the “Ice King.” They also gave a bit more insight into how ice became ubiquitous in the United States.

As with many of today’s customs, the rise of 20th century American marketing had a lot to do with it.