In 1892, at the Savoy Hotel in London, legendary chef Auguste Escoffier presented the soprano Nellie Melba with what is arguably his most recognizable dish: Pêche Melba, an elegant pairing of poached peaches and vanilla ice cream. Escoffier’s serving vessel of choice? A slender-necked swan chiseled from a single block of ice, its graceful silhouette inspired by Melba’s role in Lohengrin, the Wagner opera in which the birds are a prominent motif. It wasn’t the first instance of decorative ice sculpture, but it’s certainly one of the most influential—if the scores of swans gracing modern banquet tables and wedding buffets are any indication.
Escoffier died in 1935, but if he were around in 2015, it’s not a stretch to imagine his clientele requesting a slight modification to this genteel template—perhaps a recessed channel, leading from the crown of frozen Mr. Swan’s head and down his spine, that would allow celebrants to slurp glugs of freezing tequila off his tail feathers.
Long the exclusive domain of classically trained chefs skilled in opulent presentation, ice sculpture has democratized itself in recent years with the help of a familiar and persuasive comrade: alcohol. Playing off the concept of the ice luge, the frat-party fixture that facilitates rapid chilled shot consumption, successful ice artists are figuring out how to incorporate fun and functionality into their work, developing a lucrative symbiosis with deep-pocketed liquor brands in the process. When it comes to ice, today’s pros will tell you, interactivity is king—especially when it doubles as an excuse to drink.
According to Joseph Amendola’s 1969 book Ice Carving Made Easy, historical records trace human manipulation of ice all the way back to the sixth century B.C. Sculpting for aesthetic benefit, meanwhile, started popping in the 17th and 18th centuries A.D. by way of ice art festivals in frigid northern China (Heilongjiang province is home to the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival) and full-scale, Elsa-from-Frozen palaces in Russia.
On a more micro level, decorative ice sculpture has always been closely associated with fine dining, the tony tradition shaped by Escoffier, meaning it would become de rigueur coursework at culinary schools the world over.
That’s how Florida-based Joe Rimer got his start. Carving since his student days in the late ‘70s, his ice career really kicked off in 1996, when, as the chef of a Memphis country club, he was approached to create 6-foot-tall facsimiles of the Statue of Liberty for The People vs. Larry Flynt, which was filming in the city at the time. He’s leveled up big-time since, contributing to ambitious free-standing concepts like the reservations-only, below-freezing bar at South Beach’s Drinkhouse Fire & Ice.
Stan Kolonko, a carver based in Auburn, New York, fell in love with the practice as a student at the Culinary Institute of America before launching a career as chef. He’d later open his business, The Ice Farm, as a complement to the restaurant he owns, establishing a 4,000-square-foot production facility adjacent to his home. Inside this frigid laboratory, he can create whatever his customers please—from the Mystery Machine from Scooby-Doo to man-sized thrones to a true-to-life replica of the Larry O’Brien championship trophy.
While neither Rimer nor Kolonko can pinpoint exactly how or when the concept of the luge (named after the treacherous Winter Olympic sport) slid its way into the greater ice-carving consciousness, they agree that it happened in the 1990s—a decade characterized by the rapid expansion of the profession as a whole. Formerly limited to the heavy-starch world of haute cuisine, ice sculptures “became something that was expected at weddings and corporate parties,” says Rimer, which turned his once-sporadic sideline gig into a viable full-time business.
While Rimer gives credit to the heightened presence of organizations like the National Ice Carving Association (NICA), founded in 1987, serious upgrades in tools and technology also played a part in this period of growth. Artists whose arsenals featured basic chisels and saws were suddenly getting their gifted hands on specialty die grinders, torches, drills, sanders and even computerized systems capable of carving custom designs into ice blocks. All this forward momentum not only made way for more intricate standalone sculptures but also facilitated a heavy uptick in requests for luges—from the simple mouth-to-block renditions you might have come across in your undergrad days to much more sophisticated requests.
“[The luge orders] kinda just started showing up—it’s like, who thought this was a good idea?” says Dawson List, a New Orleans-based ice sculptor who estimates about a quarter of his jobs involve some form of luge. Locally, he’s converted design elements like the fleur-de-lis, LSU’s tiger mascot and the seal of Harry Connick Jr.’s Mardi Gras krewe into chilly drink dispensers. Given the perilously perishable medium, most of his luges—which are generally priced between $350 and $600 a pop—are completed in a single sitting and hold up for anywhere from four to six hours.
List puts in serious time outside NOLA, too. Teaming up with Rimer in Boston in 2014, he successfully built what is believed to be the world’s biggest ice luge to date, a Johnny Appleseed Hard Cider bottle that stood more than 25 feet tall and weighed 25,000 pounds. A few years prior, in Fairbanks, Alaska, List and Rimer built a luge meant to look like the fairy tale heroine Rapunzel. Using special drills, they snaked a series of vinyl booze tubes through her cascading hair, leading from the funnel-equipped top of the sculpture on down. Guests would stand at the bottom with glasses to collect their plummeting whiskey and vodka. “It’s an interesting way to get a drink,” says List.
The use of internal tubes in luges, as opposed to simply scraping gravity-aided chasms directly into the ice, is a topic of some consternation among the carving community, one that speaks to the evolving social reputation of the ice luge at large. Your garden-variety college party ice block—these pros can make them, but there are DIY mold options out there, too—requires revelers to suck the alcohol right off the ice. But at high-end events with swanky crowds, sculptors tend to avoid this. Sending straight spirits or composed cocktails through a tube, of course, is much tidier and classier—but no direct contact with the ice means the liquor isn’t getting any colder as it makes its descent.
Some might argue that this defeats the whole purpose, but New York’s Shintaro Okamoto isn’t one of them. As the principal Okamoto Studio, he and his team create breathtakingly elaborate luges, applying his fine arts eye to the process. “I think all ranges of clients are appreciating ice luges more and more,” he says. “The whole funnel-and-hose system opens up the design possibilities. It doesn’t have to be, ‘Let’s get shitfaced drunk.’”
For Okamoto, that client range includes both outside-the-box requests—he recently built a huge snowflake luge that saw performers on stilts pouring drinks down from the top—and a high number of mainstream liquor brands. The artist, who’s collaborated with Jägermeister, Stoli, Captain Morgan and Grey Goose, recognizes the kinship that exists between his medium and the industry’s flashier branding needs. “We’re very, very close,” he says. “We’re definitely bed buddies.” (Though he declined to say who, Rimer is familiar with a large vodka label that has spent as much as a million dollars annually on ice luges, ice bars and other ice-centric attractions.)
The bedfellows relationship makes plenty of sense. “Ice sculpture, in general, is very relevant to the event industry because it’s one-time-only,” says Okamoto. “People realize it’s melting in front of their eyes. It gives them a moment of preciousness…it physicalizes the specialness of the gathering.”
And no matter what type of piece the ice carvers are crafting, they never get bummed once their masterpieces starts dripping down the drain. “We’re so used to it—it’s part of the plan,” says Kolonko. “We make a beautiful piece of art knowing it’s going to go away. And then we get to do it again.”