The ice man cometh

Hamish Smith meets bartending’s king of cool, Micah Melton


IF EVER THE name didn’t fit the man, it is in the case of Micah Melton. He is the bar industry’s Ice Man – the creator and steward of likely the most expansive ice programme ever seen behind a bar. Melton has been with The Aviary in Chicago since the beginning and in seven years – from ice chef to beverage director – the ice room’s output has snowballed to 39 varieties.

Melton didn’t grow up dreaming of cold rooms. Quite the opposite – he was meant to work in the kitchen. Back home in Iowa, it was all about the food. “Cooking was always important to me. My mum and my dad cook well and were an inspiration. It turned into an obvious career path.”

He had taken a community college bachelor programme in culinary arts. All had gone well but, with only one semester to go, he met with a dilemma – he was offered a job in the kitchen of one of only two fine dining restaurants in Iowa City. Even his parents and teachers didn’t persuade him not to quit. In Iowa in the mid 2000s, this was as good an opportunity as he would find, with or without a certificate.

Melton developed his skills at Linn Street Café for a little over two years before he was ready for a new challenge. Where next? Well, as many an Iowan has concluded, Chicago – just a three-and-a-half-hour drive away – is next. He didn’t just rock up uninvited. Melton had applied to work at the new venture of Alinea, the famed restaurant that had just been awarded three Michelin stars. It was the chance to work under visionary chef-owner Grant Achatz, except not in a restaurant. “Chef Achatz tweeted one day that they were to open a bar. I went there and did a two-day interview for one of the opening positions at what would be the Aviary.”

No matter; this was to be a bar with a culinary approach. To the extent they didn’t want people with bartending experience. “They didn’t want bad habits – they wanted to teach people from the ground up.” Luckily for Melton, stints as a bar-back in his student days didn’t count as sufficient experience to preclude him.

When the opening of the Aviary was delayed, Melton found himself in the kitchen at Alinea – just helping out. “It was the coolest thing ever and terrifying all at the same time.” The idea was that they would learn to think like Alinea chefs. “I was peeling grapes with a paring knife and passing sauces through eight strainers. There was a day when we made Sazeracs for six hours, because everyone’s tasted slightly different – it was all part of the process of teaching us about batching, consistency and precision.”

When Aviary opened, it provided not only fine dining-style service and theatrical drinks, but back of house systems. Here there is no bar – drinks are made in a kitchen and presented to customers at tables by servers. From ice balls containing whisky, to blocks, marbles and pearls (and as many flavours as you can imagine), Aviary also became known as a specialist in ice. For the first two years, Melton was the man in the cold-engine room of production, with huge freezers, cutting saws and bespoke moulds his tools. He was the ice chef. “I was in the ice room from 11am until 4-5am. For the first year and a half it was just about figuring out how to get what was on the menu out [to customers].”

In 2012 Melton was made sous chef and, since 2014, he’s been orchestrating proceedings as beverage director. There is no trouble delivering drinks now. “Three minutes 20 seconds is the average. It’s all about the preparation – otherwise these drinks could take 40 minutes.”

Melton is now heading up beverages for the whole Alinea Group and leading the opening of the Aviary’s second site in the New York Mandarin Oriental. It is he who will lead the possible expansion overseas – London, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai “are cities you could have written the concept for”. It is impossible to separate Melton from ice – but also the Aviary.