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The Ice Bar Cometh, But Why?

How did the ice bar, wherein patrons gather to drink in below-freezing temperatures, become a worldwide phenomenon? Aaron Goldfarb tracks the rise of minus5º, the world's largest chain of novelty ice bars, to explain why the ice bar is here to stay.

I spend about 30 minutes flipping through the gallery on my phone. A couple on a date, clad in faux-fur coats, snuggling as they lift clunky glasses made of ice. Two middle-aged women posing in front of a penguin mascot holding an “Eski-Hos” sign. A dude with greying hair, kneeling in front of a block of ice carved like a woman’s topless torso, his face jammed in her frigid nether regions. They only get worse. This is the public photo archive for minus5°, an “ice experience” with locations in New York, Orlando and Las Vegas. It is the world’s biggest chain of ice bars, a silly phenomenon that started in the mid-1990s and, somehow, is only getting stronger today.

“We were traveling in Sweden, cruising along, and we noticed they had these ice hotels,” Noel Bowman tells me. A former venture partner with Outback Steakhouse and developer of the Jimmy Buffett-themed restaurant, Cheeseburger in Paradise, he’s founder and president of minus5°. “They pop up in the middle of winter, you just throw them in a big field and they last until they dissipate,” he says.

What Bowman is referring to is Icehotel, which Yngve Bergqvist started in 1989 in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, north of the Arctic Circle. The original structure was supposed to be a temporary exhibition of Japanese-style ice sculpture, but soon visitors were inquiring about spending the night. Rebuilt each winter, the entire 64,600-square-foot hotel—including the beds—is made from ice pulled from the nearby Torne River. Five years after opening Icehotel, the hotelier partnered with Absolut Vodka for Icebar, the world’s first bar made completely of ice. It was instantly popular.

“The demand is enormous,” explained Bergqvist, upon opening a Stockholm location of Icebar by Icehotel in 2002.

Bergqvist’s Icebar had a certain goofy elegance, like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude funneled through Scandinavian sparseness. Its American copycat, minus5°, meanwhile, is the Fortress of Solitude turned frat house, complete with General Zod and his Kryptonian followers as shot-slamming college bros from Des Moines. Bowman would hardly be offended by the comparison; he’s quite aware of minus5°’s particular brand of appeal.

“It’s mainly a bucket-list spot,” Bowman tells me, referencing his first minus5º bar, which opened in the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, in 2008. “Some of the locals are like, ‘Ugh, tourist trap.’ But we see them two weeks later with someone visiting them from Iowa.”

Bowman had initially followed a nightclub model in building minus5°, equipping it with a VIP section, bottle service and “super duper” high-end caviar. But business wasn’t so hot. He soon realized that people weren’t inclined to stay awhile—instead, they wanted to put on a parka, do a shotski, dance to Nelly’s Hot in Herre, “have a shit-kicking time” and then move on. Today, the average customer only stays about 30 minutes.

“The first ten minutes is like, ‘Wow, I’m in an ice bar,’ and they touch the ice,” Bowman explains. “The second ten, it’s, ‘Wow, I’m drinking from a glass made of ice.’ The third, it’s, ‘let’s find the photographer, buy a photograph, buy a T-shirt, get on our way.’”

Chill Out at minus5º

While the guest experience is frivolous, the making of the bar was anything but. Bowman’s team of HVAC engineers spent nearly two years creating a space made of ice walls, ice seats, even ice chandeliers (“It’s not just a big meat freezer”). They even have a resident carver who is constantly “shaping up” the bar, sharpening melting edges and fixing cracks, and even changing the entire interior every three months (a recent Game of Thrones theme proved quite popular). For what it’s worth, Bowman claims the efficiency of his system makes his electric bill cheaper than that at most large restaurants.

As for the beverage “program,” the drinks are vodka-heavy and often tropical in nature, which Bowman claims subliminally makes you feel warmer. There’s the Frosty Mojito, the Piña Colada-esque Iceman and the peach schnapps-packed Snowflake (“a cocktail to remember in a bar you won’t forget” according to the menu). The cocktails come in one-time-use ice glasses sourced from Philadelphia, costing $1.50 a piece. But don’t expect high-end mixology or even shaken drinks, which are too tough for glove-clad bartenders. “Our customers are not looking for Sidecars,” says Bowman, “they’re just getting after it. Just pounding drinks.”

After a flood of television coverage in the late-aughts, people started knocking on Bowman’s door. A second location opened in the nearby Monte Carlo Resort & Casino in 2010. Then, the Hilton wanted one in their flagship property in midtown Manhattan. “I was pretty impressed that, at the same hotel where John Lennon wrote Imagine, they wanted to put an ice bar,” Bowman tells me. He now has four locations and plans to add a fifth, at The Venetian in Las Vegas.

ICEBAR by ICEHOTEL, meanwhile, expanded from Stockholm to London, and other imitators around the world have followed. There’s the ice bar at the Hôtel de Glace in Quebec, Ice Club in Rome, Chill Out Ice Bar in Dubai and 21 Fahrenheit in Mumbai. Not all are successful. Boston’s Ice Frost Loft proved to be a massive flop. As did Czar Ice Bar in Atlanta, which angry Yelpers complained was constantly dripping on them.

“We realized you’re not going to put an ice bar in every city,” Bowman explains. “It works in touristy areas with lots of touristy activities.”

Orlando has become a particularly fertile spot. There’s a minus5° location there (underneath a B.B. King’s Blues Club), which is popular with conventioneers who like utilizing the “Icebreaker” meeting room. There’s also the unaffiliated ICEBAR Orlando, the world’s largest permanent ice bar, with 50,000 visitors a year. It opened in 2008 and has its own sister bar, Fire Lounge, where, post-ICEBAR, you can acquire a thermal cape to warm up, then “dance the night away.”

“We keep it hot and cool,” explains Patz Turner, a retiree who had spent the previous five years living on a cruise ship before she founded ICEBAR Orlando. “There have been quite a few ice bars [to] open and close in America since we started the chilly fun, but we are going strong.”

ICEBAR Orlando is also family friendly, with children allowed to visit before 9 p.m. to try a glass of non-alcoholic Penguin Pizz. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Ice bars are, if anything, dens of childish wonder. They’re the roller coasters of the bar world. And I don’t mean that in a “What a wild ride!” kind of a way. I mean that more in a “You can purchase a cheap cardboard picture of your ‘experience’ for five bucks on your way out the door” kind of way.

As one recent visitor to minus5° noted: “Truthfully there isn’t much to do in the limited space other than pose for pictures.” In the Instagram era, that’s as good an endorsement as any, and one reason why Bowman doesn’t think they’re disappearing anytime soon. Even if you cut the electricity.

“We’ve learned the whole place is just not going to evaporate. You’ll remain 30 degrees for a few days,” Bowman tells me. “It’s fairly idiot proof.”

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