Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a prograssive cocktail bar in the middle of Florida that celebrates its Art Deco past.
NAME: Ice Plant Bar
LOCATION: Lincolnville Historic District, St. Augustine, Florida
ON THE JUKEBOX: Django Reinhardt, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Florida Mule: St. Augustine vodka, ginger juice, lime WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): The F-Word: Fernet-Branca bitters, Génépy des Alps liqueur, St. Germain liqueur, grenadine, lime juice, cucumber ribbon
WHY WE LOVE IT: Selling craft cocktails in cities known for their historical sites is not an easy task. Small-town social studies teachers—your target demographic—are usually hesitant to order a drink made with Malört. But saloons such as the Ice Plant Bar in St. Augustine, Florida, are proving that if you embrace and celebrate your area’s history, you can become a stop that’s just as essential as the local fort. (See also: The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, Texas.)
The Ice Plant Bar, located within a Depression-era ice factory, is situated near the historic district of the oldest city in the country. During the time when the factory was in operation, artificial ice played a key role in the city’s economy and culture: Ice made it possible to transport seafood from the docks, keep other perishable food cold in homes and chill down entertainment destinations such as movie theaters. Before opening the Ice Plant Bar in 2013, the owners spent a year and a half gutting the property and trying to restore its authentic bones. Many of the bar’s fixtures were able to be salvaged or replicated using reclaimed antiques. The overhead steel beams and bridge crane, which were used to move large blocks of ice along a rail system, are original, as are some of the seats, which once served as ice trays. The team perfected its ambiance with period music and dress for the bartenders and servers.
“People here are really proud of history,” Ice Plant Bar co-owner Patricia McLemore says. “So we got a lot of local support for renovating and preserving a building instead of knocking it down.” The team doubled-down on its historical message by starting an ice-making program. The bar operates three ice machines, one to create common, one-inch-by-one-inch cubes; one to make pebble ice for drinks that need to be diluted quickly like juleps; and one called the Clinebell, which produces two, 300-pound blocks of crystal clear ice every 36 hours. The bartenders chainsaw those carving blocks down into a variety of different shapes like rods and spheres and then hand chip them to fit into glasses. The large chunks don’t melt as easily as smaller cubes, so drinks are less likely to get watered down. “Our ice program shows how much we care about the drinks that we serve, but it also reiterates the original purpose of the building, which was to produce super long blocks of ice and supply them to everyone in town,” McLemore says.
The drinks are just as ambitious: The menu changes every season and the staff has already collected more than 100 original recipes. Bartenders make all of their own syrups (you won’t find any corn syrup or dyes here) and squeeze fresh fruit for juices daily. Florida citrus obviously plays an important role in the menu, giving the cocktails a tart and refreshing bent. The Amber Waves cocktail, for example, mixes persimmons with bitters and cachaça. Yet for all of its focus on local ingredients, the bar program has some very worldly touches. It isn’t unusual to find a drink containing Becherovka, a bitter liqueur from Czech Republic, or tōgarashi syrup, a syrup made from the peppery Japanese spice. “A lot of our drink recipes are rooted in our love of different flavors and off-the-wall ingredients,” bar manager Zach Lynch says. When brainstorming new drinks, Ice Plant bartenders often visit the tea and spice exchange downtown or Asian markets in the area.
“Sometimes I have to tell the bartenders to hold back and stop making drinks for bartenders and start making drinks for customers,” McLemore says, laughing. “I get it, but we’re still educating our locals. We have to make sure everything that goes on the menu is approachable. That being said, the bartenders are always staying creative and having fun.” (And they still manage to sneak a few bartender darlings like Fernet-Branca, Strega and Cynar bitter liqueurs onto the menu.)
It also helps the Ice Plant mission that St. Augustine Distillery is located in the same building. Visitors on the distillery’s free tour exit through the gift shop directly into the bar. “What’s great about the distillery being here is that if people take the tour, it educates them about what small batch and craft mean before they come in here,” McLemore says. “So instead of being kind of scared or off-put by what we’re doing, they’re actually excited about it.” One day, when the Ice Plant’s drink bible gets big enough, McLemore hopes to turn it into a book—a book that would sell pretty well in a few St. Augustine souvenir shops, we would imagine.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. She loves a good small-town social studies teacher. Find her on Twitter: @amshep