A churning debate: The best craft ice creams?

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams: 1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-355-6050, jenis.com. Pints: $10-$13.

Morelli's Gourmet Ice Cream: Three locations, morellisicecream.com. Pints: $8, quarts (can be two flavors): $10.75.

High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet: 2241 Perimeter Park Drive, Atlanta. 678-701-7623, highroadcraft.com. (Factory Store open only 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays.) Pints: $6-$7, $40 for 8 pints.

You might expect to read about ice cream in high summer, when cold treats are served as an antidote to the heat. But, really, every season is the right one when you’re eating high-quality products made from all-natural ingredients. As an added bonus it melts slower, so you have more time to savor it.

When my expert tasting panel and I met in a windowless Atlanta Journal-Constitution conference room with 18 pints of ice cream, I almost wanted to say, “Forget all this judging business. Just pick your favorite flavor, grab a spoon, and let’s kick back.”

It’s ice cream, meant to be loved rather than analyzed.

But no. We had gathered with spoons poised and pencils sharpened, ready to find the best scoops in Atlanta. Now’s the time: The ice cream scene in this city is churning like never before.

Morelli’s Gourmet Ice Cream jump-started this new ice age in 2008 with the opening of its first shop in Ormewood Park, serving small-batch flavors like coconut-jalapeño and salted caramel — then a novelty and an immediate obsession for many. There are now two additional locations in the Edgewood Retail District and Dunwoody, but true Morelli-heads know to go to the original shop for the edgiest new flavors.

High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet, founded by former chef Keith Schroeder, started small, selling its all-natural product to local restaurants and on Saturdays from the tasting room adjacent its facility in an industrial park. Now High Road Craft is a familiar local brand, and its most popular flavors, such as bourbon burnt sugar ice cream and ginger-hibiscus sorbet, are available in local retail outlets, including Whole Foods Markets.

Other local, small-scale producers came on board. Honeysuckle Gelato first drew attention for its food truck and now sells in various restaurants and markets throughout Atlanta. Frozen Pints crafts unusual beer ice creams, which can be found at some markets and restaurants, but mostly in liquor stores.

Then, last month, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams opened an Atlanta shop in the Westside Provisions District. This Columbus, Ohio, producer has been called one of the best ice cream makers in America. Owner Jeni Britton Bauer has earned national accolades for her commitment to using the best products, creating distinctive flavors, and eschewing the traditional egg custard base. She has been slowly expanding, with only a few satellite shops in Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois and here. With Jeni’s in town, the game is on.

It was time for a tasting.

To keep things simple, I decided to compare Morelli’s, High Road Craft and Jeni’s. I love Honeysuckle and appreciate the true-brew flavors of Frozen Pints, but worried that both were still a little too small-scale.

I picked out basic vanilla, the best chocolate of the various versions each producer offered, a caramel, a sorbet and several wild cards — flavors that showed personality. Then it came time to assemble my crack tasting panel:

  • Kamal Grant, the Atlanta doughnut king who has begun to make and sell his own ice cream at his hopping Westside destination, Sublime Doughnuts.
  • Kristen Hard, the bean-to-bar chocolate producer who sells her world-class confections at two locations of Cacao Atlanta in Buckhead and Virginia-Highland. (She also sells Honeysuckle Gelato at the shops.)
  • Scott Phillips, the Culinary Institute of America-educated chef who manages food service at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and creates a lot of buzz among hard-to-please journalists with his daily specials.
  • Jamila Robinson, a Journal-Constitution features editor, who is famous in every social group she joins for her stellar homemade ice creams. I would say this even if she weren't my boss.

Overall, we had the liveliest discussions about the Jeni’s flavors, which are intense and sometimes downright startling. High Road Craft flavors were overall more mellow, but dialed up the salt and acid here and there to good effect. Morelli’s had a decidedly creamier texture (perhaps because the pints were hand packed), but overall got slightly lower marks because some flavors didn’t ring as true.

I asked folks for tasting notes on each ice cream and an overall ranking of their five favorites. Here’s how the taste-off played out:

1. Battle Vanilla: Jeni’s Ndali Estate Vanilla Bean, High Road Craft Vanilla Fleur de Sel and Morelli’s Vanilla

The group liked Jeni’s for the high-quality vanilla flavor, High Road Craft for the inspired addition of salt and the unusual cooked or malted milk flavor, and Morelli’s for the creamy mouthfeel. A couple of people complained about the sweetness and “extract” flavor of the Jeni’s. High Road Craft for the win.

2. Battle Chocolate: Jeni’s Askinosie Dark Milk Chocolate, High Road Craft Chocolat Noir and Morelli’s Chocolate

Some found the tiny pieces of high-quality chocolate in the Jeni’s “gritty,” but most loved the intense bittersweet flavor. High Road Craft earned praise for its smoothness and malted chocolate flavor. Everyone thought Morelli’s was the most familiar, with a distinctive cocoa flavor. Jeni’s for the win.

3. Battle Caramel: Jeni’s Salty Caramel, High Road Craft Bourbon Burnt Sugar and Morelli’s Salted Caramel

The Jeni’s had a seriously burnt, hate-it-or-love-it flavor. (One taster questioned whether we got a bad batch.) High Road Craft wasn’t a real contender here, and people were divided on the boozy whiskey edge. Morelli’s was salty, smooth, and eyes lit up. Morelli’s for the win.

4. Battle Sorbet: Jeni’s Pear Riesling, High Road Craft Hibiscus Ginger

People swooned over the Jeni’s sorbet, which tasted of orchard-fresh pear. They also loved the sharp, true flavor of ginger and gorgeous purple hibiscus color of the High Road Craft sorbet. Morelli’s didn’t have a sorbet at its shop. Maybe a slight win for Jeni’s, but call it a virtual tie.

5. Battle Wild Card: This round was more of a free-for-all, with seasonal and limited-edition flavors. Jeni’s Sweet Potato with Torched Marshmallows “tasted like Thanksgiving at Grandma’s,” according to one taster. Morelli’s Banana, Nutella and Waffle was “delightful, childlike fun,” said another. High Road Craft’s Brown Butter Praline was “a little too sweet, but praline at its best.” We also tried Morelli’s Black Cherry as well as High Road Craft yuzu sorbet and Mr. Butterpants, which tasted like a serious Reese’s peanut butter cup.

As you might well imagine, once we hit the wild cards it was time to turn the criticism off. Ice cream, on final analysis, is meant to be a pure pleasure.