The Aviary: 20 kinds of ice, but no bartenders

How many types of ice do you keep on hand for making cocktails?

At The Aviary in Chicago, they have over 20 different kinds of ice. That’s right. TWENTY. Cubes, spheres, crushed, hollow…TWENTY.

I feel like such an ice slacker! Before I wrote this cover story about Aviary’s ice program for Food Arts magazine, I couldn’t have named 20+ types of ice.  Turns out Aviary has its own ice room and a special “ice chef” to make all that ice.

But here’s what Aviary doesn’t have:  bartenders! And when I interviewed Craig Schoettler, who oversees Aviary, I was amazed to learn that he never even bartended before stepping into the role.  To learn, he developed an informal training exchange with craft cocktail whiz Troy Seidel.

“On his day off, I’d teach him how to make chicken; on my day off, he’d teach me how to make a Sazerac,” Schoettler recalled.

To read the article (and see the pictures of all those pretty pretty ice shapes!), pick up the September 2011 issue of Food Arts (no link, sorry). By the way, that gorgeous cover photo? It’s the Blueberry cocktail from Aviary. Never before have I had the impulse to LICK the cover of a magazine.

A guy walks into a bar (and says, “make me a drink”)

Cocktail omakase at EN Japanese Brasserie

My article on bespoke and “omakase” cocktails is out in the Jan/Feb issue of Food Arts magazine

Yes, just as cocktail menus have become an industry standard, it’s become a knowledgeable wink among savvy imbibers to ask the bartender to stray from that list.

One of my favorite parts of the article is the sidebar:  I asked several bartenders to “make me a drink” appropriate for cold-weather tippling. If pressed, I also specified dark spirits (rye or Bourbon), spirit-forward, and appropriate to drink before dinner. It was amazing to see the variety of drinks that bartenders constructed within those directives! The bartenders included Michael Neff of Ward III; Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common; Leo Robitschek of Eleven Madison Park; Eric Alperin of The Varnish; Brian Floyd of The Vanderbilt; and Gen Yamamoto of EN Japanese Brasserie.

Speaking of EN Japanese Brasserie, I was there for the Food Arts photo shoot (the photo above is mine, taken of the drinks assembled for the professionals to capture on film). Here’s my blog post from that outing.

Top 5 blog posts from 2009

Although this blog has been in existence for about six months (not a full year), already it’s become clear which posts have been most read (two words: drink recipes!) and most commented upon (more opinionated posts). Expect more of both in 2010. 

Here are the five most-read posts from this blog over the course of 2009:

#1. Hot Stuff: Habanero Simple Syrup – A step-by-step tutorial, with photos. And a post featuring this ingredient, The Dragonfire Cocktail, clocks in around #15 on the most-read list.

#2.  The “Hot Bartender” Syndrome – Should bars be allowed to advertise for “hot female bartenders”?  (Note – this post includes one of my all-time favorite comments:  “Big boobs do not really help me enjoy a crappy cocktail.”  Hear, hear!)

#3. How to become a regular – Like free drinks? Then you need to become a “regular” at your favorite bar. Here’s how.

#4. All about cocktail ice in Food Arts – A wrap-up of one of the hottest trends in the cocktail world: ice.

#5. Drink Recipe: The Fiery Almond – Consensus seems to be that this is among everyone’s favorite cocktails from the Spice & Ice book!

All about cocktail ice in Food Arts

It’s amazing enough that the September issue of Food Arts is almost entirely devoted to ice — the best ways to freeze, well, everything; liquid nitrogen cocktail experiments; best blast freezers, etc. Fascinating concept issue, though I was sorry the wine column wasn’t devoted to ice wines.

Ice sphere

Ice sphere

But what amazed me the most was the section on (cocktail) ice and ice machines buried within the “Arctic Arts” feature written by David Arnold and Nils Noren. Bartenders really do take ice seriously. Anyone who’s witnessed the obsessive Japanese art of carving ice into perfect spheres by hand knows what I mean.   

Arnold and Noren point out that bartenders “yearn for what they see as the lost age of great ice,” namely the days when pure, perfectly clear ice was harvested from lakes. (Did you know that Boston was the epicenter of the ice trade? I didn’t, though I’ve been to frosty old Boston in wintertime and I shouldn’t be so surprised.) So since no one harvests lake ice any more (is that a new artisan industry I smell?) here are the main solutions that bartenders use for great ice:

Machines:  namely the Scotsman nugget machine, which bartenders like for particular drinks like cobblers; the Kold-Draft, which makes big, 1 1/4-inch squares that melt relatively slowly; Manitowoc, which apparently is known for its quiet operation; Hoshizaki, which produces a special crescent-shaped ice cube that supposedly minimizes splashing when you pour and creates “superior displacement,” making pours look taller than average; and the Ice-O-Matic, which uses the ingredient ionic silver to inhibit bacteria and slime fungus growth (ick!).

Freeze your own ice. Arnold/Noren note that Sasha Petraske’s joints freeze big ice molds in domestic chest freezers, and use them to carve ice spears and use it for “shaking ice.”

Buy good ice. Apparently Richie Boccato at Dutch Kills rejected ice machines altogether and orders 300 pound blocks of ice, which can be used for about 300 drinks. “There’s always a block on display at their ice carving station, which makes for a great show.” The team there was trained for five months on ice prep techniques prior to opening, and they use Japanese wood saws, upholstery hammers, and ice picks to break them down. Yikes!

Liquid Nitrogen:  Possesses only 15% more cooling power than the same amount of ice. But it freezes quickly and makes smaller ice crystals, which imparts a smoother texture in the frozen substance. (and besides, nitro is just so flash these days…yes, Vegas, I’m lookin’ at you.)

And I can’t resist quoting one last comment from Don Lee of Momofuku:  “If sushi is all about the rice, a drink on the rocks is all about the rock.”

p.s. If you still have an appetite to read more about cocktail ice, this thread over at eGullet is for you.