Last winter, people set up smoke-free campfires, erected towering patio heaters and bought the pocket warmers at the checkout at Costco. In the face of pandemic-induced tragedy, there seemed to be an equal and opposite well of ingenuity. If people could not gather safely inside, by Jove they were to gather outside, freezing temperatures for hell!
Now that it’s 2022, it looks like we’re all running out of that gung-ho mindset. As the new year approached, I certainly counted myself in that camp, so I did something drastic: I built an ice cream parlor.
Yes, a bar made entirely of ice cream and some snow that I can mix and serve drinks from is currently in the backyard of my suburban home. No, I’m not a sculptor (ice cream or anything), I have no experience in construction (or bartending, for that matter), and I do not have any particular machinery that helped me achieve this feat of frosty engineering. I simply saw the Omicron variant spread in December and decided that if I can not safely go to a bar this winter, then I will bring a safe outdoor bar experience home to my house.
As I sat at my ice cream parlor one night in my Minnesota parka and long johns on a bar stool made of ice, I looked around at my neighbors’ backyards, which were dark and covered in snow, no footprints to be seen, and thought: why does not everyone do this? I plan to invite those neighbors over for a drink when I’ve got my ability to bartender-in-gloves up to snuff to spread the gospel locally, but for the rest of you out there in the colder regions of the world, here is how you too can be an ice king or queen in your neighborhood.
How to make an ice cream parlor
If you live in a city where the temperature is consistently below freezing in the winter, you might just have an ice cream bar near you at a restaurant or hotel as an attraction to entice you to. Personally, I was inspired by my fellows in Minnesota, specifically the story of a family who built a bar in their front yard last winter. It consisted of a wooden frame, lots of ice bricks that had been frozen for over a month, and supplies from Target worth $ 50. It looked good, but I figured I could build one without a frame in less time for $ 0.
First, the most obvious caveats: If you live in an area without abundant snow and where it is routinely above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, you will never make this work. Here in Minnesota, I was able to build mine in late December and early January when temperatures dropped as low as -20 degrees and peaked at 33 degrees in a day or two, but this week has even i from the frozen north been worried as peaks reached all the way up to 38. Luckily the mercury dives down again.
If you’re in a similar icy landscape, this is how I built my ice cream parlor:
I started with a YouTube tutorial from the channel Minnesota Cold, run by Nathan Ziegler from Minneapolis. I took the basic instructions described by him and adapted them to my needs. The construction consists of taking the largest plastic trash cans or storage containers you have – ideally those with flat, square bottoms – placing them outside on a flat surface, filling them with water and then letting them freeze into blocks. Depending on how cold it is, you can make your blocks bigger or smaller. I made some as big as six inches wide (filled my trash cans with six inches of water), but that’s because I knew they would freeze in -20 degree weather; if it is always above 0 degrees, choose four inches of water. To prevent your hose from freezing, connect it to a faucet inside your house and run it outside where you have placed your trash cans. I also had a bucket from Home Depot in my garage so I thought I would fill it to the brim with water and also try making a few stools.
When you check the progress of the freezing, you will be able to see pockets of water in those who still need some time outside. When mine were completely frozen, I turned them over and slid them gently out with one hand on the ice; if you turn them upside down and let them fall to the ground, they can crack. Assembly required placing the blocks upright in the snow, wrapping snow around them for support, and then freezing them in place by pouring some water on the snow and ice to make a kind of cold cement. Since the base was solid – mine are four ice blocks in front, two at the ends and three in the middle to support another layer – I laid several flat blocks on top and made the same process with the snowwater cement, eventually adding a smaller second level with three blocks front, two supports and then a bartop of three flat plates.
A few remarks that may be indifferent but that may be helpful: If you have longer containers to freeze the blocks, you may not need to stack two floors like I did. My bins are about 20 inches long, so I settled for that. If you are building a stepped bar, use thinner blocks as you build taller to avoid stress on the ice below. And when you top your bar, you want to choose the smoothest blocks possible. (During the freezing process, you may see some bends in the plastic containers as the ice expands.) Do not top it with anything so thin that it can obviously crack if you lean against your bar, and not so heavy that your hard work falls apart like a Jenga tower.
A week after officially closing my ice cream parlor, it still stands, including the feces, which miraculously froze. All in all, it took me a week and a half from start to finish.
How to finish what you need to serve and other questions
In Ziegler’s video, he lines his bar with LED lights attached to plastic slats cut from blinds. The final product seems to be ready for prime time at Sweden’s famous Icehotel, but I simply put a bead row of solar powered camping lamps, which I already owned, behind my bar, drove them between the openings in the ice blocks and called it a day. Price tag: nada. End product: almost, if not as impressive. The extra outdoor lights for all kinds of weather tucked between my house and a tree in my backyard help with the atmosphere, and a campfire far enough away from the bar helps keep people warm.
Now we come to the most important question in this endeavor – What do you serve at an ice cream parlor? From my experience, beer is obvious as one can just stick it in a bucket or directly in the snow, but cocktails are the key. What’s more impressive than an expert blended drink made by the same hands that built the bar?
In that regard, you will want to stick to warming spirits like whiskey and simple cocktails you know like your own trouser pocket, like a Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Boulevardier. Bottled ingredients are your friend, while anything that requires extra utensils or preparation, like fresh juice or fruit garnish, is not. (Olives and good cocktail cherries are ideal, they give your guests some extra calories to keep warm.) If you can make hot chocolate and keep it toasty enough to serve outside, do so by all means – with a bottle of Baileys at hand – Just be aware that any hot mugs quickly melt into the top of the bar, which I discovered on my first outing.
A simple drop of Scotch or other whiskey will probably also be welcome when your guests’ main goal is to stay warm, without judging your mixology skills or bottle choices. That said, as I do this instead of decorating local establishments, I like to keep Minnesotan bottles in stock at the ice cream parlor, and Keeper’s Heart Irish-American whiskey from newcomers at the O’Shaughnessy destination distillery is a personal favorite.
For anyone ready for the challenge, be warned: you will be asked every time. I thought my personal experience building an ice cream parlor was a bit Griswoldian. Like Clark making his house in light National Lampoons Christmas Holiday, I felt like I was leaning almost too hard into suburban life while people at the same time rolled their eyes at my endeavor. I could imagine the final triumph even though others could not.
When the ice cream parlor was finished and I first turned on the light at. 18.00 a night – the sun goes down here around kl. 5 – I knew it had been worth it all. It was a tall, solid, glorious lighthouse of light in the midwinter darkness. And the old-fashioned one I made, with two cherries that I feel I deserved, was the coldest I’ve ever had.
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