ATLRetro has been planning to launch a cocktail and food section ever since we revved up, but we wanted to ensure that when we did, it would be a regular feature that you could count on. The ground rules would be simple – Retro location in a vintage building; Retro cuisine from the best in classic diners and blue plates to tantalizing tiki (guess where, we dare you!); venues that have been around long enough to be Atlanta institutions; and/or worthy additions to the city’s cocktail scene. In other words, when you want to dress up in your swanky suit or vintage dress and slowly sip a fantastic drink with that special date, spouse or just friends, where should you go? We’ll alternate between supper club and happy hour pieces and promise at least one of each every month, always posting on a Wednesday to help you plan your weekend.
Appropriately, we think, ATLRetro first piece is a Happy Hour because everyone on MAD MEN knows that a great cocktail is the essential apertif to a delicious expense-account dinner, isn’t it? Our drink of the week is Vodka, and with hundreds of different vodkas on the menu, Czar Ice Bar, in Buckhead’s Andrews Entertainment District, has perhaps the largest selection in Atlanta. Normally heading to Buckhead might be a bit too neo-trendy for us, but we found Czar Ice Bar to be a surprise charm with a touch of old world class worthy of James Bond. Atmospherically the intimate blue-lit space was the perfect retreat from summer heat with a bar literally made of ice and a dramatic blue glass ceiling, seasoned with a taste of old Russia thanks to ornate seating, bottles lined in cathedral windows and towering paintings of pre-Soviet nobles. Oh, yeah, we could easily imagine Pierce Brosnan seated at it in a tux sipping a martini with a sexy spy in a slinky evening dress.
We recently caught up with co-owner Stephen de Haan to find out more about Czar Ice Bar’s striking interior design, generous vodka selection, and why sushi is on the menu (we can attest Master Sushi Chef Saito Saito‘s creations are both original and scrumptious). Of course, we also asked for some advice on crafting the perfect vodka cocktail and how to stock your own bar at home.
ATLRetro: What’s the story behind Czar Ice Bar?
Stephen de Haan: Czar Ice Bar developed from our passion for amazing cocktails. Specifically, with hundreds of different vodkas, flavors and house-made infusions, we have an amazing palate to paint with. Also, with the success of Prohibition around craft cocktails, we saw a void in the market. Specifically around women who enjoy vodka both in flavor and because it has the lowest calories for any spirit, and who are looking for a sexy nonsmoking environment. How did the owners get the idea for it? We developed Czar around this idea of a sexy environment focused on vodka. Initially Cold-war era Soviet Union comes to mind, but we went back further to the aristocracy of the Russian Empire during the period of the Czars. We were inspired by the Winter Palace, specifically the sitting room, and what would a modern day Czar’s sitting room look and feel like. Combine this palatial feel with a modern vodka-based cocktail program and Master Sushi Chef Saito’s sushi masterpieces, and you have a place where any Russian princess would want to relax.
We have over 300 vodkas. They have all been tasted and selected by [myself]. The first criteria is the nose; they need to be clean, not offensive like rubbing alcohol. The second is the mouth feel. All of our vodkas are smooth, with very little after-bite. Also we look for uniqueness, for example, vodkas that have unique distillates, such as Russian Bear which is distilled from molasses, and Pau which is distilled from pineapple in Hawaii. We love a the story behind the brand, the people, the process, and how it impacts the final product.
Vodka is often thought of as not having a lot of taste nuances when consumed straight-up. Other than flavor-infused vodkas, what are a few aspects that differentiate vodkas and makes one better than another for drinking straight or in cocktails?
When comparing the traditional vodkas side by side you will find a large difference between a potato vodka, or a winter wheat, or corn vodka. Once you know the flavor profile for each and find a preference, then explore the others in that category to find a personal favorite. Also, some people with a gluten sensitivity have not thought about the vodka, and the clouded head may not be a hangover, rather a reaction to some part of the distillate. A switch in vodka may be all it take to keep you feeling well and the head clear. Then again sometimes it is just imbibing a bit too much.
Of course, we have traditional martinis; our Czar Martini features Imperia vodka 8 times distilled and is made in a traditional style with a Dolin Dry Vermouth-rinsed cocktail glass served with blue cheese-stuffed olives. We also serve cosmopolitans, apple martinis and the like. One unique feature is a California Cosmo with your choice of 14 different orange-flavored vodkas.
What are a few of your more favorite, more innovative creations, and any anecdotes about how you came up with them?
Recently for National Donut Day, we featured our own house-made Krispy Kreme vodka. We chopped one dozen doughnuts, paired with Van Gogh Caramel vodka and spun it in our laboratory centrifuge at 4,000 rpm for 20 mintues. The result, a clear smooth Krispy Kreme vodka.
What’s your philosophy behind a vodka cocktail? For example, are there some mixers that are go better with vodka than others?
Very simple. Fresh is best, less is more. Start with a smooth clean vodka like Van Gogh Blue, and mix it with any fresh juice. You need not overdo the juice because a clean vodka will already disappear in the drink.
The perfect martini, is almost like the perfect BBQ. Every region, every person has their take on the perfect martini. Some believe the vermouth should stay in the next room, others a spritz, and still others a rinse. The Czar Martini is what I consider the perfect martini. Made with eight times distilled Imperia Vodka from Russia, shaken ice cold, served in a Dolin vermouth rinsed martini glass with Cabrales Blue Cheese-stuffed olives.
Sushi is traditionally paired with sake, so why sushi at a vodka bar?
Think Russia and caviar. Caviar is used in many sushi dishes so taking the next step only seems natural. Also, with Master Chef Saito’s house-made sauces that he garnishes many of his dishes with, we are using the same ingredients, mango, fresh orange, etc.
I particularly like the Smash Hit, a martini made with 360 Georgia Peach Vodka, fresh mint and fresh-squeezed lemon juice paired with the Lobster Roll. The sweetness of the lobster is enhanced with this clean sweet peach martini. On the more adventurous side, I would recommend the one of Chef Saito’s special dishes, the Pacific Ocean. With a wonton sheet and sail, mixed fish, fresh cucumber, cream cheese and Shiro Dashi sauce, it pairs nicely with a Square One Organic Cucumber martini.
The interior design of Czar Ice Bar combines traditional elements of old Russia with the giant portraits and bar items displayed in spaces resembling cathedral windows with a very contemporary club atmosphere—blue lights and 2st century furnishings. Who was the designer and how did you come up with the look?
I researched many images of the Czar Palaces and relayed those to my partner Stan Weaver who took the ideas and ran with them creating our own modern interpretation of these palaces. We are very proud how all of the elements came together.
Do you have any advice to our readers on how to stock their home vodka bar?
I see a lot of vodka that has spent tons of dollars on advertising producing a premium image. Those are ok, but I prefer to look at the artisanal small batch vodkas. On the label they will say small batch or pot-distilled. These are made by artisans one batch at a time creating the best product possible.
The ice bar itself, 27 feet long, four inches thick of solid ice was a huge undertaking. We first found an ice skating rink manufacturer that “thought” it could be done but never had himself. They went to great lengths for us custom-manufacturing the refrigeration mat that freezes the ice. After that, we worked with local fabricators for a custom pan to house this in. Next was working with a number of engineers to review the cooling load specifications. Initially we thought we were going to have to use medical grade chillers, but soon found a source with a unit that met our very strict guidelines. As we installed it looking at different insulation technologies developed by NASA so that a guest’s legs sitting at the bar would not be cold from the immense slab of ice resting inches above them. The whole process was an experiment in itself, but it could not have turned out better.
All photographs are courtesy of Czar Ice Bar and used with permission.