The bar is made of 120 tonnes of pure Canadian ice. So are the walls and all the furniture, along with intricately carved ice sculptures, including a replica of the Vegas skyline and an icy Iron Throne just for Game of Thrones fans. Walking into Minus 5 Ice Bar in Las Vegas is like stepping into a real-world scene from Disney's Frozen. Interior of the Minus 5 Ice Bar at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Everything inside is made of ice, right down to the glasses. (Images: Minus 5)
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Elsa would feel right at home in the subzero climate of this winter wonderland. But the rest of the patrons don complimentary parkas, gloves and hats to stave off the cold, the better to enjoy their speciality cocktails, which are served in custom glassware — also made of ice, of course. "We like to say that the drinks come in the rocks instead of on the rocks," general manager Rupert King told me. There's even an LED light show every night, inspired by the aurora borealis.
Minus 5 president Noel Bowman got the idea for Minus 5 when he visited a pop-up "ice hotel" in Europe one winter — structures built entirely out of blocks of ice, that melt with the warmer weather and are rebuilt every year. The hotel had a small bar area, and Bowman thought it would be cool to create a more permanent version. So he pitched the idea to Mandalay Bay — "It took about a year to convince them."
“We like to say that the drinks come in the rocks instead of on the rocks.”
The first Minus 5 was smaller — the idea was to have it be a VIP bar with bottle service. But Bowman quickly learned the concept worked better as a novel attraction rather than as a typical nightclub. Patrons stay in the newly revamped ice bar between 30 and 45 minutes, on average — just long enough to have a drink, explore the ice sculptures and get their pictures taken so they can share them on Facebook (no, you can't bring in your own phone — more on that in a minute).
Drinking inside a simulacra glacier has proved to be a hugely popular tourist attraction — so much so that there's now a Minus 5 in New York City, a very different seasonal environment from Vegas, noted Bowman. "In the middle of winter, with the wind chill, sometimes it's warmer in the ice bar than it is outside."
Soft blankets, gloves, parkas, gloves and hats are provided to keep drinkers warm.
The engineering challenges of maintaining all that ice are considerable. It's not as much the heat, as it is the humidity which can be an issue. Kevin Liu — co-owner and chief cocktail maker of The Tin Pan in Richmond, Virginia, and author of Craft Cocktails at Home — pointed out that a subzero space like Minus 5 will have zero humidity in the air. "That can change your perception of the temperature," he told Gizmodo. But according to Bowman, low humidity is really good for the equipment. "We chose Vegas for a reason," he said. "It's so dry here, and humidity can wreak havoc on refrigeration systems, because as soon as you get that moisture in there, it turns to drote. The components and units freeze over."
The Minus 5 cooling system hails from New Zealand and is fully computerised to take many different factors into account: outside temperature, ambient heat, the number of people inside and the body heat they collectively generate, for instance. The parkas and gloves help a little in that respect, as does the ban on electronic devices like mobile phones in the ice bar. (Ninety mobile phones can generate a significant amount of heat.) But Minus 5 encourages people to touch the ice, and patrons like to remove their warm coats (and often much of their clothing) for photos — because, hey, they're in an ice bar! "Once you take that coat off, all that body heat escapes," said Bowman.
Then there's the issue of sublimation: under those conditions, over time your ice will evaporate into a gas. "If you put large ice cubes into the freezer and leave them there for a long enough time, they will turn into nothing," said Liu. "So if your furniture is made of ice, it will slowly turn into nothing."
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Bowman readily acknowledges that issue: "Ice is perishable," especially with patrons constantly taking off their gloves to touch the sculptures. So the ice is carefully maintained by a local ice carver to keep everything as sharp and pristine as possible. Sometimes sections that are especially worse for wear will be rebuilt, and every two years or so, the entire bar is melted down and rebuilt with fresh ice.
How the ice is made matters, too. If you freeze ice too quickly, crystals will form haphazardly and you'll get cloudy ice, according to Liu. If the water expands too quickly, the resulting ice will have stress lines and cracks. Impurities can also cloud the resulting ice, although Liu said that it's air bubbles rather than excess minerals that are the culprit in that regard. That's why Minus 5's ice is made from distilled water at just the right temperature, using a process that ensures no excess air or bubbles.
Intricately carved ice sculptures and cocktails served in ice glassware at Minus 5
It's not easy coming up with a solid cocktail menu in a subzero environment, either. Alcohol has a lower freezing point than other liquids, so that's not an issue. But you can't salt the rim of a margarita, since the salt will melt the ice glass. Soft drink is out, because the cans would explode. Fresh lemons and limes would freeze, so forget about those traditional garnishes. And while the bartenders do use fruit juices, they have to rotate them out every 20 minutes or so, lest they start to resemble slushees rather than juice.
You'd think this would dramatically limit the kinds of cocktails on offer, but the recent surge in flavoured vodkas has been a godsend in that regard, according to King, providing a broader range of flavour profiles than ever before. "I couldn't imagine doing this 15 years ago, when all you had was Absolut and their six flavoured vodkas, and Grey Goose and their two flavours," he said. So most of Minus 5's specialty cocktails are vodka-based, although patrons can request any kind of liquor they wish.
“We’re proud to say that we’re the only bar in town where the longer you drink your beer, the colder it gets.”
One longtime signature cocktail is the Snowflake — Minus 5's version of a Sex on the Beach, with cherry vodka, peach Schnapps, white cranberry juice and orange juice. Another is the Ice Man, a nod to the classic pina colada, with coconut, pineapple and raspberry vodkas. Thanks to a mojito rum infused with mint, you can get a Frosty Mojito, with no need for the bartender to struggle to muddle fresh mint leaves in a frozen environment. And yes, you can also get a beer, stored in a refrigerator outside the bar and served in the trademark ice glass. "We're proud to say that we're the only bar in town where the longer you drink your beer, the colder it gets," said King.
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When you're working with ice glassware, all your liquids — including alcohol — need to be at just the right temperature to avoid damaging that glassware. So the liquor is stored in a separate freezer before they bring it into the ice bar. "If it's too warm and you add the liquid it will crack the ice glasses," said King, just like pouring warm soft drink over ice cubes will cause them to pop and crack.
Then there's the challenge of trying to mix cocktails while wearing a heavy coat and gloves. That's why Minus 5 has streamlined the process so that a bartender only has to touch four items, at most, in order to make a drink: a vodka, a modifier and two juices, for instance, or a vodka and two juices. This also ensures patrons get their drinks quickly, said King. "The only thing worse than waiting for a drink in a bar is freezing your butt off and waiting for a drink in a bar."