Ice Men Young & Old
One recent hot afternoon, I chilled out with the fresh and charismatic Michael Treffen about carving ice the old fashioned way, by hand, in the cool, dark cellar at the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company, 18th Street in Center City. It’s a boozy joint dedicated to the craft of high quality cocktails and genuine old fashioned good service and personality.
Franklin Mortgage regularly orders their 40 lb block ice from The Ice Butler out of Malvern, using a ‘Clinebell Machine’ to create the giant ice cubes. They’re formed in large logs at roughly 600 lb sizes over a two day process.
The blocks are then manually chiseled each afternoon by Michael and his co-bartenders at Franklin. Like me, Mike had carved limestone as a college student, (his alma mater is DePauw in Indiana where limestone is plentiful) picking up the influential skill of observation of impending fractures in the ice before they occur. The goal is to cut up roughly 40 spherical ‘rocks,’ to be used individually in cocktails. The sphere concept to enhance slow melt and reduce dilution of drinks, yet to add a perfect timed chill and extend the drinking ‘experience.’ Don’t be disillusioned, Mike says “There’s No Chill,without Dilution.” The presentation of a baseball sized ice-jewel in my drink here was surprising and fun, all at once. The professional labor and professorial knowledge enthusiastically spilling over from Mike is a surefire reason to return, if only for the interesting conversation, let alone quality hard stuff!
The ice rocks are made, then chiseled to perfection, intending to reduce impurities and zero air bubbles. Typically on a Saturday, between 40 and 80 ‘rocks’ are cut to fit the glass. Some reuse the refuse ice, cool cut-offs that are perfectly safe for shaking drinks and other sorts of iced, ordered ‘up’ purposes. Up meaning drinks are cooled and prepared with ice, yet the ice is strained before presentation. Michael day-dreamed carving ice like an apple with a sharp kitchen blade, as if he’d entered the cutting edge of masterful Japanese ice men on clouds like Andrew Pourer, David Arnold and Mike’s personal favorite ice carving YouTube clip (being in Japanese, the name was lost in translation).
The ice tools themselves are all made mostly in Japan, where there’s an amazing Japanese Ice Museum and Annual International Ice Contest. Manayunk has its own International Ice Carving Team take to the streets in February, while Manhattan recently added its own ice box of a bar, chilled to a brisk 28 degrees called Minus 5 Ice Lounge, frozen to The Hotel Hilton, Midtown.
The space limitations Franklin works within may not afford them the luxury of freezing molds, or specialty tempering processes, but the effort is worth the reaction and the business they’ve grown. What do customers think of a giant rock in their drink Mike? “People love it. Looks-xhos#@ashf-Franklin-Cool. Visually impressive.”
The “rocks” are carved diamonds for drinks set into thick tumblers – Old Fashioneds, Tom Collins, Negronis and other drinks ordered ‘On the rock.’ Franklin Mortgage is currently onto their 15th current menu in four years. Drinks are submitted to Chief Bartender Al, who decides the final cut. Making this latest menu edition for Mike is the With a Baseball Bat – a drink like a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich….Peanut Butter Washed Old Frester Bourbon, Bols Genever, Creme de Mure Creme de Framboise, Brown Sugar Syrup, Aphrodite and Fee’s Bitters, Served on a Rock!
Twenty-two homemade syrups are crafted over a burner smaller than half the size of a home stove! Each is lovingly prepared with tremendous skills by the bar backs. He has his favorites and opinions, so don’t be shy and ask! “Some drinks, like Fizzes and Sours with citrus are intended to be downed quickly and don’t require the rock. Daiquiris are meant to be short lived experiences, kinda like Miami, right?”
Others drink experiences are conceived to for deep, contemplative nights with a soul mate or best friend, or simply for time spent alone with a great guy or gal at a classy place. If you bring your friends or after-work party, a Punch Bowl can serve up to 10 guests with a giant ROCK or a carafe for four can be ordered off the menu.
I wondered as Mike sweated and chiseled flying frozen water, watching it carelessly drain into the accommodating floor drain below, knowing the things the public does: “Do people do inappropriate things with ice here? I mean, is spitting, chewing and or gurgling a problem your staff has to deal with post-cocktail?” Mike knowingly replied, ”Every night, someone asks ‘can I get it (the rock) to go?’ ” I got the sense that diplomacy is truly a Franklin trait. So is hard work. The “Late” Bartenders leave between 3:30 and 4 in the morning.
“Prohibition killed the bar culture.” When asked what drives him, Mike rattled off A Zombie recipe from the Tiki Movement from California in the 30’s in LA, where rum drinks once presided an escapist paradise from world realities of the national financial collapse and impending World Wars abroad.
Michael Treffen graduated with his MFA in Sculpture in 2009. “Bars are places people are happy.”