At Chicago's Aviary, Cocktails Become Art

The Aviary ups mixology to couture status—right down to the types of ice served in its cocktails.

If you're looking for the forefront of Chicago's cocktail scene, head to the corner of the Fulton Market and Morgan streets and you'll find The Aviary. Readily found on any "best bars" list, The Aviary pairs intricately created cocktails with small tasting dishes, and the drinks come out from a state-of-the-art kitchen like the organic products of a mad scientist's lab. Try to describe the cocktail mastery here and you'll be referencing terms like infusions, injections, botanicals, and teas. Leave any expectation of a "local neighborhood pub" right when you make reservations and buy advance tickets to a cocktail tasting experience (yes, advance reservations are absolutely necessary, although the bar does make same-day tables available on its Facebook page). Still hungry? The restaurant Next is indeed right next door, also the product of Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas.

How The Aviary Ices a Cocktail

Where caught up with The Aviary's beverage director Charles Joly to talk about the magic of the ice and to let us in on the secrets that happen in the super-kitchen.

In any other lounge in Chicago, the ice wouldn’t be such a big deal. What is so special about the ice here?

Ice = dilution in a cocktail. It is the constant that nearly every cocktail made has. A drink is either stirred or shaken over ice, thus adding a great deal of water to the recipe. However, the recipes never tell you how much water goes into the cocktail—a seemingly huge oversight.

Chicago has a vibrant cocktail scene. While most venues don’t take it to the extreme we do, all of the cocktail bars pay attention to the ice they shake and serve on.

What’s the fascination with the ice, and The Aviary in general?

Let’s not separate what we do, fundamentally, from any well run establishment. We’re here to create an exemplary experience for the guest. We want people to have a great time. We push the prescribed paradigms a bit and question everything when it comes to our cocktails. In the end, a delicious cocktail will never be sacrificed for technique; however, if we can create anticipation, evoke emotion and stimulate the senses will giving a world class experience the guests should leave “wowed” and want to return.

What conditions must be met to create the ice?

We have two full time ice chefs. One begins work at about 11 am and works until 6 pm or so. The other arrives about that time and will work until close—usually 2 or 3 am. There are hours of prepping flavored ices, filling molds, harvesting the big blocks that will become hand chipped ice, preparing glassware, etc. It is a big project, but an aspect of the program that we deemed very important from the get go. We approach every aspect of our beverage program with the same fervor. Whether it is ice, the spirits, cocktails themselves, service vessels, food … it all gets the same attention that a high level restaurant would give. 

What about “regular ice” takes away from the full flavor of a cocktail?

What makes a good piece of ice superior to typical machine ice (or the ice we freeze at home) is density. Size plays a role, but density is more important. It means the ice will take longer to melt, diluting the cocktail more slowly and not washing it out. Flavored ice adds depth and an additional element as it melts, as opposed to simply diluting.

How many staff members know how to make the ice?  Why so few?

Beyond the two ice chefs, there are several of us that can step in to lend a hand. Chef de Cuisine, Micah Melton, began in the ice room and is quite adept at the station.

Your team created a YouTube video a few years back to describe the ice-making process. What was the consequence of it? Were more people from out of state coming to visit?

The video has about 60,000 views. Not much by YouTube standards, but pretty crazy when you consider “it’s just ice”. We don’t look at it as just ice. I’ve shown that video at conferences all over the world- it allows people to glimpse into what we do and is a bit of a teaser.

Should first-timers Google The Aviary, or would that take away from the spontaneity of the experience?

I think it’s a good idea to have an idea of what we do. You can make reservations at  Come with an open mind, come with people whose company you enjoy and come thirsty.

At your house parties, do you just use the ice from the fridge, or do your guests get the special ice?

I generally have my fridge stocked with high quality ice. Make friends with your local cocktail bar—they may set you up with a bag to take home.


Aviary's Ice: By the Numbers

Number of ice types: About 25 at any given time

Number of tools employed to make the ice: Two full time ice chefs, two super chillers, one blast freezer, three reach-in freezers, one full-size freezer, one reverse osmosis filtration system, 10 custom ice molds, 100 custom glasses, one chainsaw,  one kleinbell iceblock maker, one hoist for 300-lb blocks, one drill, picks, chisels, industrial tank of liquid nitrogen, 100 pounds of dry ice/three days ...

Hours spent to carve one piece: An experience ice chef can cut an ice chard for water in a 20 seconds, make a hand chipped sphere in 3 minutes and make the hollow shell for the “In the Rocks” in about 11 minutes

Average number of iPhone images captured in one sitting: Depends on the guest…. three to five.

Average tab per table: Depending on the guest- you can order one drink a la carte, a flight of three, five-course tasting menu with food & drink, 10-course tasting menu with food and drink  etc. About $45/person with tax and tip

No. 1 question posed by patrons about the ice: Does someone really chip every piece?  How do you make the “In the Rocks” sphere? Can we meet the “ice guy”?

Specialty cocktail at Chicago bar The Aviary
The ice makes the drink and the drink is art. (©Christian Seel)