Chip off the old block: At these 2 bars, icing cocktails the retro way is hot

WANT THAT cocktail on the rock?

Depending on the drink, a single rock is exactly what you're sipping around at two Philly bars: R2L, the stunning 37th-floor bar and restaurant atop Two Liberty, and the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., the lower-level speakeasy in the former Bar Noir space, on 18th Street.

Bartenders at these temples to the retro cocktail are so intent on mixing the perfect libation that cubed ice is seen as a sell-out.

Tear your eyes off the sweeping views and check behind the bar at R2L. You'll see a crystal-clear, 125-pound block, a frozen slab that can get chipped away to shavings in a single busy weekend night.

The ice at the Franklin, a swank saloon specializing in pre-Prohibition cocktails, arrives in 40- to 50-pound chunks, chiseled before service into the right size and shape to perfectly chill a handful of artisanal drinks on the menu.

Why take a pick to a frozen block when it's so much easier to put cubed ice in a glass?

"Because," said Michael Welsh, managing partner at the Franklin," block ice has a larger surface area. It keeps the drink cold without diluting it. Cubes have the propensity to melt and dilute the cocktail. We love block ice because when you use it, the last sip of that drink tastes as good as the first sip. And that's ultimately our goal."

While Franklin doesn't display the block behind the bar - a space issue - at R2L, sommelier and bar manager, Ryan Davis shows off the massive berg to his bar customers. "We're making drinks the way they used to be," he said. "And block ice is part of that movement."

Because R2L was built to suit, the design included extra floor drains and a designated area for chipping, which makes a bit of a mess. "The plan was to keep the bar both visually appealing and functional," he said.

Like Welsh, Davis was inspired by pre-Prohibition-era cocktailing, a purist approach that doesn't hold with froufrou drinks and flavored vodkas. "The idea is to really taste the spirits, not hide the flavor of the alcohol," he said. "What Dan [Stern, chef/owner of R2L] is doing with the food, we're trying to do with the cocktails. And the block ice is part of that."

Although block ice seems exotic now, back in the days before home refrigerators were common, pre-1930s, that was the only way it came. An iceman, first on a horse-drawn wagon, later in a truck, delivered ice in blocks to cool food in the ice boxes found in most kitchens. Making ice in a freezer, or deep-freeze section of the fridge, didn't become common until after World War II.

Even now, when automatic icemakers are de rigueur in most refrigerators, the business of ice still thrives. Both R2L and the Franklin work with a Frazer-based family-owned business called the Ice Butler. When partner Mark Tillman's parents purchased the business in 1978, it was small cubes, selling about 2,000 pounds a day.

"We're now at 50 tons a day," said Tillman, in the business for 25 of his 38 years. While the vast majority of his business is in cubes - used by caterers, at sporting events, at area colleges and even to cool down and set poured concrete ("Every bit of concrete in the 202 expansion has our ice in it") - Tillman takes pride in giving customers exactly what they want, when they need it. And that includes block ice, for ice carvings at hotels and country clubs and behind the bar at R2L and the Franklin.

The thing about block ice is that it must be perfectly clear. Look at the ice cubes from your freezer the next time you fill a glass. The ice is usually cloudy or has white striations that keep it from being crystal clear.

That's because of the presence of natural minerals in the water. "That's also why ice tastes funny sometimes," said Tillman.

In a large commercial operation, pumps keep the water moving, separating minerals and sediment and keeping the frozen product near perfect. Mammoth machines churn out ice through 10-foot long tubes, cut inside into cubes, with blocks made in what Tillman describes as a giant ice tray with 50 gallons of water in each section.

"If we just froze it, the ice would be all white and wouldn't taste good. So we use a pump to circulate the water, which freezes from the bottom up. The minerals settle at the top, are milled off and we're left with a perfectly clear block."

That's what's causing quite the stir at R2L, once customers realize that the ice for their drink is being picked to order.

"Everybody loves it," said Davis. "It's really something different and unexpected. People go to a bar like Franklin because they know they're getting a crazy, handcrafted cocktail. We have people who just come in for happy hour and order a scotch on the rocks. They get this hunk of ice in their glass, and they really get excited."

The bar is moving more whiskey-based drinks because of the ice factor, he added.

"People will just sit and sip and watch us chip away. Over the course of the night, that ice just disappears."