The first (and final) frontier: A conversation about ice with Chuck Avery of Melt New Orleans
Many years later, stuck in a small studio with yours truly, Chuck Avery remembered vividly his discovery of custom made ice. “I experienced massive blocks for the first time at a place called the Toronto Temperance Society and I was awestruck,” he says, recalling the beauty of the pristinely rendered (and more-than three-hundred pound) frozen monoliths. “You know, you're looking at this thing and it's aesthetically really appealing and it's functionally brilliant,” he passionately says.
Now, as owner of Melt New Orleans, the city’s first custom ice house, Avery has turned his fascination and longtime bar and service industry experience into a business model. “There’s been a progression towards higher craftsmanship and quality [in the industry],” he says, adding later that while control over ice has been gaining traction in the national scene, the initial concept is not so much a new thing as it is a reemergence of a pre-Prohibition tradition. “The original ice found in cocktails, before there was refrigeration and freezers, came from rivers mostly and sometimes from glacial ice that was shipped down.”
“It's kind of the original frontier. But, then again, it’s [also] the final frontier. Good ice is what cocktails started with and now they're coming back to it.” In fact, this connection with the past inspired the Cajun Queen of cooking herself, Marcelle Bienvenu, to reach out to Avery when she heard about his business. “She contacted me and told me this brilliant story about how her father’s friend who had a home bar and that he was always saying, ‘You have to start with the ice!’”
“She was addressing something from her childhood from a man who is significantly older…and this knowledge [that has] atrophied and died. Now, people are becoming wise to it and they’re researching old recipes and really dialing into the intricacies of what made a cocktail so spectacular.”
It’s on this topic of why is this ice so special that Avery’s microbiology background shines brightly. He explains that, “Ice will purify itself. As the lattice structure is forming it pushes out impurities given the chance, which is why flowing streams make great ice— because they're shearing off the impurities." Household freezers, however, are a different story and tend to “trap air and impurities in the ice because it’s [enclosed] on all sides. So nothing can escape.”
“The simplest drink is just something on the rocks. So, you can have this beautiful scotch and you put it over ice that's got a lot of air in it; well the first thing that happens is it melts really quickly,” says Avery, explaining that, “[good ice] gives you another layer of control,” which is so important for those caught up in the craft cocktail revival.
While the business is still very new, Avery wants to expand in the future and hopes someday people will find his ice, “…in every bar and restaurant with a serious cocktail program throughout the state.” He also would love to procure a CNC router at some point, which, with its intricate design capabilities, would allow him enormous creative control over the shape and production of his product. “Literally anything that you can design with a computer in three dimensions, you could then create with ice.”
“I was thinking of how amazing it would be to get into the thermodynamic properties of different sized glasses and how to interact with them. But, that's like— that's uber geek," he says laughing. “That's going to definitely require some major science.”
Until then, Avery plans to continue experimenting with custom logos, herbal freezes, and partnering with different spirit companies for release parties, because when seeking to highlight a new product, “…nothing works better than a big, beautiful piece of ice in the middle of it. It just stands out.”
Melt New Orleans’ ice can be found at several restaurants in the city, such as Lilette, and it is available at Faubourg Wines in the Bywater and Spirit Wine in Uptown for retail purchase. To find out more about Chuck and Melt New Orleans, visit www.meltneworleans.com.
Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.