The Ice Man Crafteth

The cold doesn’t seem to bother Javier Roberto Flores—not even the 10-degree deep-chill of the industrial freezer that houses the heart of his company, Fat Ice. With hardly a shiver, he walks around the bone-numbing room in a short-sleeved “#MakeIceGreatAgain” shirt, pointing out the tools of his trade: souped-up band saws, wax-lined cardboard packaging and ice. Lots of ice.

The ice is cut into squares and rectangles of different sizes, ranging from a standard 2-inch block to hand-chipped spheres, but to call them ice cubes would be to do them an injustice. This isn’t the kind of ice that spits out of a fridge in murky little wedges. This is solid, pure ice, sliced by hand into geometric perfection: the edges sharp, the sides as smooth and clear as glass. They’re what ice cubes aspire to be, and what more and more bartenders prefer for their creations. “I like to compare it to a chef wanting a good flame,” says Flores. “It’s what you build everything else on.”

Maybe it sounds precious, but when everything else about modern cocktails has been so obsessively handcrafted, why not artisanal ice, too? Fat Ice comes in four sizes that look odd until you see them slip Tetris-smooth into a cocktail glass. Flores and his crew cut them from big blocks like the kind that were once delivered door to door. One of these blocks stands in a corner of the freezer, tall, dark, polished and imposing, like an alien mother ship disgorging a fleet to conquer Earth. The block “grew” from a Clinebell, a premium ice machine that turns purified water into frozen gold—crystal clear ice with no air bubbles or minerals, so it melts more slowly and doesn’t alter a drink’s flavor. The massive Clinebells are too big for Flores to run efficiently, so he orders the blocks from a few out-of-state sources. “Totally worth it,” he says. “Ice like this gives you the ability to better control the beverage. To let it taste the way it was intended to taste.”

Flores can talk all day about ice—going on about pH levels, the effect of internal and external air temperature, how the crushed version of Fat Ice looks like “disco-ball lights.” He still spends 30 hours a week cutting ice himself, even though he has a crew of up to 10 to help. “I like that my guys and I can inspect each cube by hand,” he says.

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Flores cared about ice long before he started selling it. As a self-described “arrogant bartender” serving drinks in South Texas, Flores went on a 2011 cocktail research trip to Los Angeles in his ongoing quest for better ingredients. What he found was the start of the artisanal ice craze. Inspired, he began cutting his own ice for the bars and restaurants he managed back home in McAllen. When he made the leap to Austin in 2013 to tend bar at Midnight Cowboy, he brought his ice with him, and people noticed. Soon he was selling so much ice on the side that he made a full-time business out of it. After all, he couldn’t tend bar forever. “Bartending really is a young person’s game,” he says. “I did a guest shift at a bar recently and looked like a fool.”

Flores’ first stab at the craft ice biz, Big Ass Ice, ultimately failed, but he relaunched in 2015 with a new name and an advantage few other artisanal ice makers can boast of: a liquor retailer as a partner. Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods delivers the hundreds of ice cases he makes every month to all parts of Texas and helps him ship to other parts of the U.S. as well. Spec’s stores will also soon carry Fat Ice six-packs and other ice products. And Spec’s provides Fat Ice’s state-of-the-art freezer—an unoccupied spare in one of its Austin warehouses. “It had never been used, except for a stray box of deer meat lying around when we moved in,” Flores recalls.

Flores may soon need more freezers to grow Fat Ice the way he intends. Though he put aside his undergrad business degree to pursue bartending in 2001, he can hold his own with seasoned MBAs when discussing distribution, packaging, wholesale and retail market penetration and other aspects of the business. He’s shipped custom orders all around the country, and plans to set up shop in cities beyond Austin. “I’ve got a product that can work anywhere. I don’t want to stop in Texas,” he says. “Let’s put it that way.”

By Steve Wilson • Photography by Melanie Grizzel

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