The Capital Region is about to get chillier.
And that’s a good thing. This weekend and well into the month of February, ice bars are slated to open throughout the area: from the Adelphi in Saratoga to Bellini's in Latham.
The ice bar trend has been on the rise in the last few years and it’s kept Charles Jones busier than ever.
“This year we’ve [already] completed our tenth bar,” Jones said in a recent interview. Jones, who is perhaps better known as Charlie the Ice Man, runs The Ice Man Custom Ice Sculptures out of Hudson Falls, with the help of his wife Amy and a few other ice people.
Jones is a cross between energetic and calm, as he crosses the small studio to open the lid on an ice block machine to check its progress, offering advice to fellow sculptor and former student Matt Young along the way.
“There are ice carvers out there, but [we’re] ice sculptors,” Jones said. And it shows.
Young carefully drilled small indents into the outer rim of a large snowflake sculpture, making light from a nearby lamp dance off each indent. He’s worked with Jones for several years and it shows in the intricate detailing of the sculpture.
When Jones started the company nearly 25 years ago, the executive chef turned teacher, ran the place out of his garage and hand carved most of the pieces.
“It was basically a six by twelve freezer,” Jones said.
Over the years, he’s built up the business, moved into the current studio, hired a team of eight other sculptors and gone high tech, with ice block machines and a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine (which he’s nicknamed Timmy).
“I think of the Ice Man and the company of the Ice Man as an art studio that houses many artists,” Jones said.
With the rise in clients (the Ice Man serves over 90 businesses and people around the Northeast), other Ice Men and Women have joined the team over the years.
“I’m more of a mentor,” Jones said. Many of the sculptors heard about the studio through the Southern Adirondack Education Center, where he teaches culinary arts. Some also started out as Ice Man interns. Former students like Young and Luke Trupia, are lead sculptors, sculpting whenever they can in the studio, usually between other culinary arts, teaching or physical training jobs.
Ice sculpting is a physically demanding job. One freshly made block of ice takes about three days to make and weighs around 300 pounds, which needs to be carefully carried around the studio. If a piece of the crystal clear ice blocks gets chipped, possibly from hitting a door frame or slipping from someone's hands, it can mean going back to the drawing board and starting the three-day process all over again.
“It’s the only place you can sweat and freeze at the same time,” Jones said.
Although he’s got sculpture work regardless of the season (weddings in the summer, Easter parties in the spring, and galas all year round), this time of year the focus is on ice bars and ice thrones. It's perhaps the most extensive sculpture-work, mostly because of its size.
“A typical ice bar takes about eight ice blocks,” Jones said.
After each block is made, coming out of the looking more like thick glass than ice, it’s placed in the CNC freezer. Amy, who is a graphic artist, designs the ice bar pieces and Jones codes her two-dimensional design into the CNC machine. From there the design gets engraved into the block of ice.
The automated process is relatively new for the business, and the art form. Jones still has hundreds of paper templates from when he would carve the ice by hand. A time he’s not particularly nostalgic for.
“I’ve spent so many hours engraving ice that I actually have tendonitis in my arms,” Jones said.
Although some ice sculptors refuse to use the high tech method of sculpting, Jones said the new way just frees up more time for other things.
“It doesn’t do the artwork. It does the day to day stuff,” Jones said.
The real artwork comes with shaping the ice, adding in any light or coloring details (which is sometimes done by adding sand), or infusing two pieces of ice together, making it as eye-catching as it can be.
While Young worked on the snowflake, in another part of the studio, Trupia made sure another sculpture was running properly through the first stage of engraving in the CNC machine. He’s a former student of Jones’ and he’s been working with him for several years.
“There’s a constant learning curve,” Trupia said.
Even though he’s been working with ice since high school (he’s since graduated from the Culinary Institute of America), Trupia has found that there’s always a problem to solve. The team is continuously figuring out the best ways to make what can be some complicated sculptures (a typical sculpture involves carving at least two blocks of ice) or the best ways to transport the finished products.
The Ice Man is known for taking on those challenges and pushing the limits of what’s possible to do with ice.
Like last year’s ice bar at The Mill on Round Lake.
Besides the intricate luge and the massive ice bar, there were ice shot glasses and the ice games.
“We’re always pushing ourselves,” Jones said.
This year, Jones has come up with a few other ice games for the Mill and other places. There’s ice plinko, snowflake toss, ice shuffleboard, ice pong and ice ladder ball.
Michael Callagan, the general manager of the Mill, said doing an ice bar last year was risky. Everything depends on weather and on whether or not the crowds come to outweigh the cost. But it was well worth it in 2017, which why they’re bringing one in again this year.
The Mill opens the first weekend in February. But how far into February depends on the weather.
Jones can cover the ice bars in plexiglass, which provides a barrier between body heat and the heat from hot bar drinks. “I tell people that they can dance on our bars, but to call me first because I’d like to see that,” Jones said.
During the daytime, the bars are usually kept covered from the sun. But there’s only so much that can be done to protect the ice.
“We’re always remembering that mother nature has the last word,” Jones said.
But, according to Jones, ice is most picturesque when it begins to breaks down.
“It pops as it melts,” Jones said.
Adelphi, The Mill getting frosty
“It’s honestly a no-brainer,” said Steve Bouchard, the marketing coordinator for The Adelphi Hotel in Saratoga Springs.
The hotel has an expansive outdoor patio and garden area that hasn’t had much use since the place opened in October of last year. Installing an ice bar seemed like the perfect way to show off the space, said Bouchard.
The ice bar will be open Thursday through Saturday, from this weekend until mother nature takes it down, according to Bouchard.
The garden adjacent to the patio will also be open, with couches and heating lamps providing another area for people to mingle if the ice bar gets too chilly or too crowded.
The ice bar at The Mill at Round Lake is also open and has expanded since last year, both in terms of space and in games.
They’ll have a snowflake toss (similar to a bean bag toss), ice ladder golf and an ice shuffleboard.
“Last year we went through over 900 [ice shot glasses]. This year, we’re going to try a ski shot,” Callagan said.
Three shots will be served on the binding of a ski.
“. . . to have [all] at once with friends,” Callagan said.
Ice bars in the region:
Here’s a look at some of the ice bars in the area. Word to the wise: call before heading out.
The Adelphi Hotel
Thursdays through Saturdays (Jan. 27, Feb. 1-3)
Adirondack Pub and Brewery
33 Canada St.
Funky Ice Fest: Saturday, January 27
The Sagamore Resort
110 Sagamore Rd.
Glacier Ice Bar and Lounge: Saturday, January 27 - Sunday, January 28
Bellini’s Italian Eatery
624 New Loudon Road
Wednesday, January 31-Thursday, February 1
The Mill on Round Lake
2121 U.S. 9
Weekends starting on Friday, Feb. 2
37 Phila Street
Friday, February 9 - Saturday, February 10
Prime at Saratoga National
458 Union Ave
Prime Polar Ice Bar
Friday, February 23 - Saturday, February 24