A New Iceman Commeth

Chuck Avery of Melt New Orleans transforms ice into art.
Illustration by Tony Healey
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

Any cocktail connoisseur will agree, ice quality has a huge impact on your drink. The science behind why is fascinating to contemplate over your next Sazerac.

The true magic of ice is in its actual energy, which remains stored until it hits liquid.

“Crushed ice creates a quick blast, while large, dense cubes give you the greatest control and flexibility,” says Neal Bodenheimer, owner of craft cocktail lounge Cure and restaurant and bar Cane and Table.

Chuck Avery first witnessed the magic of large format ice in 2013 at the Toronto Temperance Society, a Canadian craft cocktail bar. Back at home in steamy New Orleans, he was unable to shake the memory of those glacial boulders. His company, Melt New Orleans began as “a ridiculously small-scale, side hustle,” Avery remembers. Today the burgeoning business is a frozen kingdom of craft cubes and has transformed the former sommelier into New Orleans’ new iceman.

Avery first began experimenting with ice cuts using simple woodworking tools. His microbiology degree came in handy exploring the process of freezing New Orleans tap water into pure, crystal clear ice, while his professional background in beverages allowed his imagination to go wild contemplating the possibilities.

Eventually, Avery was able to find adequate space for the proper tools of his trade. He acquired his dream machine, the Clinebell, which uses reverse osmosis filtered water to fill double wells of circulating water which, over a three-day period, freeze from the bottom up, achieving perfect clarity in 300-pound block form.

Next, Avery traded his woodworking tools for the massive, stainless-steel butcher saw he uses today.  Once the engine hoist hustles a heavy ice block onto the saw table, Avery is able to create custom ice for any purpose. Melt’s bestseller is a 2-inch cube, the perfect size for a standard 3-inch double old-fashioned glass, while 4- and 5-inch spears provide the ideal chill for a Collins or highball. Three sizes of spheres are offered, each formed by hand using a ball press. For the creative bartender, whole chipping blocks are available, along with 10-inch DIY chunks used to hand chip rough-hewn Japanese-style spheres.

Avery’s glistening ice forms are so mesmerizing that his services have become a luxe addition to events, where he manipulates cubes into balls and other magical shapes on site. His punch bowls crafted from full-sized blocks are showstoppers.

There’s no denying the influence that Tales of the Cocktail has had on Melt New Orleans’ business. Every July, thousands of bar professionals, liquor industry executives and cocktail enthusiasts flock to the Crescent City for an entire week of programming and partying — all requiring a great deal of high-quality ice. Industry wide, the preferred cube measures 1 ¼ by 1 ¼ inch and is only mass-produced by one commercial ice machine, the Kool Draft.

As production of Avery’s handmade 2-inch cubes is extremely limited, two years ago, in preparation for Tales, Avery invested in his own Kool Draft machines. Last year, Tales reportedly used 11,580 pounds of Kool Draft ice; Avery and his machines worked around the clock.

Bodenheimer holds Melt New Orleans’ services in high esteem, noting that as a New Orleans business owner, standard operating procedures are necessary during the city’s frequent boil water advisories.

“It takes over 24 hours for us to have our Kool Draft machines producing again, so Chuck’s deliveries have kept our doors open.”

With another Tales of the Cocktail on the way, Melt New Orleans is poised for big expansion.

A new, much larger facility will include a walk-in freezer and Avery is giddy over the possibilities a computer-controlled router will bring to his business. With this technology he’ll be able to cut in three dimensions, so he is busy designing the ultimate “Chill Lounge,” a 900-square-foot bar, completely constructed of ice. What could be lovelier in the midst of a hot New Orleans summer?

 


Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.


 

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