Ice bars, the most Minnesota way to do some drinking, are back

Birch's on the Lake

Birch's on the Lake

You can look at winter in Minnesota in one of two ways.

It can be something to endure as you scurry from your house to your car to your office, cursing the snow that’s turned the highway into a parking lot. Or you can go all in, embracing the snow and ice while skiing, fat tire biking, or ice skating.

Ice bars appeal to those of the latter persuasion. While some venues and events have hosted the frozen fixtures for years, they rose to prominence thanks to last year's Super Bowl festivities. But how do you create and operate an ice bar—and what’s behind the frozen mystique?

Minnesota Ice is the company responsible for many of the Twin Cities’ glitziest frozen watering holes, including the 2018 installation on the rooftop of the Hewing Hotel and this year’s setup at McKinney Roe. The company uses sculpture-grade ice, which is crystal clear and free of impurities.

“You can read a newspaper through it,” says Erik Eastman, Minnesota Ice director of sales. “It’s not made with magic water, boiling water, salted water, distilled water, or unicorn tears—it’s a process. We use directional freezing, like the way a lake is frozen.”

The company’s ice bars start with 300 pound blocks of sculpture-grade ice measuring 40 by 20 by 10 inches. “There’s a limitless amount of ways you can construct an ice bar," Eastman says. "There’s no one way to do it—the questions we ask [the client] drive the design.”

Eliesa Johnson

Eliesa Johnson

Many of Minnesota Ice’s bars include a brand or company logo; others have chipped edges that catch the light and sparkle. Some are kitschy and purely decorative. The ones that will be used as working bars need to be designed so bartenders can comfortably mix cocktails and serve beer. “Creating ice bars is the most interesting-slash-creative-slash-challenging part of my job,” Eastman says.

There's also the obvious logistical issue: the temperature.

“Last year, when we installed [the ice bar], it was 50 degrees,” says Sara Luoma, general manager of the Lexington Restaurant Group. “We were trying to get the curling tables working and frozen. It was tough.”

But chilly weather brings problems as well. “The biggest challenge is for the bartenders out in the cold, keeping their hands warm for four to five hours at a time,” says Deb Schaber, president and CEO of the Saint Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation, which produces the Saint Paul Winter Carnival. “Also, making sure your canned product doesn’t freeze—when it’s below zero, it’s hard to keep it from freezing.”

The sheer size of the ice blocks can also create challenges, especially when ice bars are situated on a rooftop, like at the Lex. “We had to do a lot of investigation last year with the engineers who constructed the building, to make sure the structure could hold thousands of pounds of ice,” says Luoma. “We have a limited-use elevator, so last year we used a big crane to get the blocks of ice on the roof.”

It's an awful lot of work, so what’s the appeal?

Eastman points out that ice bars let restaurants and bars utilize their outdoor spaces in the off season, as well as providing partnership opportunities with alcohol and clothing brands. For patrons, it’s about embracing the season instead of moping indoors. “I think the appeal is being able to come out in the middle of winter and celebrate,” says Schaber. “Nothing can stop you—you can still have a drink in a cold park.”

There’s also the wow factor. “Once you get massive ice structures, they’re just neat,” says Eastman. “It’s not something you come across frequently.”

Lisa Houdek, a manager at Birch’s on the Lake, agrees. “Everyone just wants to see it—most people have never seen an ice bar before. Everyone that comes into the supperclub makes the trek, even if it wasn’t their destination to begin with. It’s such a Minnesotan thing.”

St. Paul Winter Carnival Ice Bars
When: January 24-February 3, during Saint Paul Winter Carnival hours
The menu: Budweiser and Goose Island beers, cider, hard seltzer, and wine. There’s also mulled wine made with a “secret recipe.”
Details: According to Schaber, ice bars have been part of St. Paul’s Winter Carnival for “as far back as I know—a couple decades, probably.” Their location in Kellogg Mall Park is ideal for taking in other Winter Carnival festivities like the Ice Sculpture Garden and live music.

The Lexington
When: January 24-February 2 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to close. The ice bar will also be open at noon on January 27 for the Fancy Hotdish Competition.
The menu: Summit beer, Pendleton whiskey, and housemade spiced cider with Pendleton whiskey, plus other spirits and cocktails.
Details: Keep busy while you drink with tabletop curling, an activity Luoma debuted last year. (“It’s like a giant ice shuffleboard table you slide a hockey puck down.”) There are also plenty of photo ops, including an ice throne, ice cube trellis, and a multi-colored lighting production designed to make the whole thing sparkle.

Birch’s on the Lake
When: Fridays and Saturdays from 7 to 10 p.m.
The menu: $5 shots featuring Tattersall spirits
Details: Situated on a deck overlooking Long Lake, the cozy atmosphere at Birch’s ice bar makes it feel like a trip up to the cabin. Shots are served in ice shot glasses, and you can toss your glass at a bullseye afterwards. Other activities include ice shuffleboard and hammerschlagen, as well as a lineup of live music indoors at the brewhouse and supperclub. Check the website for the music schedule, and reservations are recommended for supperclub dining.

McKinney Roe
When: There aren’t regularly scheduled hours, but the ice bar is typically open two hours before and two hours after events at U.S. Bank Stadium. Check the restaurant’s Facebook page for details.
The menu: Tailored depending on the event, and may include select canned and bottled beers as well as cocktails.
Details: The ice bar is situated on a patio overlooking Commons Park, with an impressive view of U.S. Bank Stadium. Some special events are in the works, but dates and times haven’t been finalized—keep an eye on social media for details. Reservations are recommended for dining.