Anthony Tahlier
Fresno chile pepper juice-spiked cubes
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Chiller Theater

Kara Newman / August 2011

Whether it’s frozen in blocks, shards, cubes, spheres, chunks, or globes, ice is the “it” ingredient for cocktails at this über cool lounge. Kara Newman offers a chilling account.

The Aviary is a cross between a classic cocktail lounge and a mad scien­tist’s lab. Perhaps that’s to be expected as the brainchild of willfully experimental chef Grant Achatz. The excruciating attention to detail in the high-concept drinks also extends to one element often taken for granted: the ice. In fact, Aviary nightly serves up to 20 kinds of ice.

“Ice is the backbone, cornerstone, foundation of a cocktail,” explains Craig Schoettler, executive chef at Aviary. “If there’s not enough ice, it’s too warm; too much, it’s too watery. It’s fundamental in making a cocktail. We want to change the way that people think about ice.”

There are no bartenders at The Aviary. Ten chefs work under Schoettler to pro­duce all the food and drinks. “We operate like a kitchen, not like a bar,” Schoettler insists. “We have expediters. We spend a lot of time thinking about the ingredients and what they can do, what we can do with them. The only difference is that we are turning out drinks.”

In addition to “service” or “conventional” ice—shapes that can be found anywhere, like cubes—The Aviary also creates more elaborate “artisanal” ice, ranging from ginger-flavored “snow” to clear, perfect spheres, to hollow ice shapes that double as vessels for the drinks. All of the ice is made by Micah Melton, who is alternately known as the ice man, the Eskimo, or the ice chef. “All he does is freeze things,” Schoettler says. “It’s a very important job. We don’t want this done haphazardly, so we have one guy dedicated to ice.”

An “ice room” is also dedicated to making ice for The Aviary and The Office, the recently opened speakeasy below Aviary (although not for the adjacent Next restaurant): A small room with three lowboy freezers, a sink, a reverse osmosis tank, and PolyScience “superchillers,” which use coils and an alcohol-water bath to swiftly and precisely chill a liquid down to 18 degrees.

Which ice for which drink? Function is as important as form. Smaller pieces, like crushed ice or miniature 1/4 inch ice spheres, are intended to dilute quickly, while larger chunks and shards are meant to provide a long-lasting chill. “The question is, how cold do you want it to be?” Schoettler says. “That’s the determining factor of which ice to use.”