On a typical Las Vegas day, when temperatures in winter can make it feel like the Fourth of July, Rupert King comes to work dressed like an Arctic logger: long johns under his jeans, Under Armour beneath his shirt and thick snowboarding socks and Wolverine boots to keep his toes warm. If it sounds crazy, it is. But that’s exactly the point of Minus5 Ice Lounge.
A perfect antidote to the desert heat, Minus5 is the brainchild of Craig Ling, a New Zealander who opened the first ice lounge—where the walls and seats are made of ice, and guests don gloves, boots and faux fur parkas—eight years ago in Auckland. (The lounge took its name from its room temperature, minus-5 degrees Celsius, or approximately 23 degrees Fahrenheit.) In 2008, he opened a location of the enterprise stateside in the Mandalay Place, a shopping promenade that connects the Mandalay Bay and Luxor hotels. A second location opened in the Monte Carlo resort in August, swapping out the Mandalay Place location’s adjoining warming lodge for more ice lounge space.
King, whose resume includes stops at Kahunaville and the now-shuttered Red Room, two of the city’s top flair bartending bars, serves as general manager and resident mixologist of Minus5’s Monte Carlo location. In creating the lounge’s cocktail list, he was forced to deal with conditions your average bartender would never encounter, including juices that must be rotated every 15 to 20 minutes to prevent freezing and glassware made of, you guessed it, ice. Due to its association with the frigid temperatures found across Russia, vodka became the focus of most of the cocktails, although other spirits and mixers can be brought into the lounge from an outside cooler. Teetotaling guests beware: a glass of water can only stay liquid for so long at this temperature.
“It’s a different style of bartending,” King said. “We only have a variety of juices. We don’t have absolutely everything. We’re not carrying homemade Bloody Mary mix because it would just freeze up. It’s so thick—that won’t work in this environment.”
What does work are King’s specialty cocktails such as the Iceman ($10), a mix of coconut and pineapple juices, Raspberry di Amore liqueur and Sobieski vodka, or the Snow Flake ($10), an update on the Sex on the Beach that includes Sobieski, Gaetano Amaretto, Gaetano peach schnapps and orange and cranberry juices. Because vodka has a lower freezing point than other liquors, it works best as the base spirit for Minus5’s cocktails. That said, they have managed to include one tequila-based cocktail, the Icy Margarita ($10), made of Sauza Silver Tequila, Patrón Citronge, lime juice and a homemade sweet and sour mix.
Cool in Vibe and Temperature All Year Long
Even with the aid of a parka, gloves and boots, sitting inside Minus5 can be a test of a customer’s endurance. There’s no humidity or wind, but the climate is otherwise very similar to the kind of snowy winter’s day experienced in many parts of the country. Exposed skin begins to slowly grow colder and colder as the minutes pass by, and you can even see your own breath in between sips of specialty cocktails and vodka shots, the lounge’s most popular drinks.
No matter the time of year, Minus5 has found itself thriving in a down economy, attracting people who see the lounge as a “bucket list” item and passersby curious to see the inside of an ice lounge. During the summer, tourists flock to the lounge as a respite from the triple-digit heat. In the winter, conventioneers have kept business booming. Locals have been slow to embrace the lounge (they make up only five to 10 percent of the clientele), but added exposure from features on the Travel Channel, Fine Living Network and E!’s reality show Holly’s World have helped spread the word. Tourists still account for much of the clientele, with foot traffic and word of mouth serving as the lounge’s main modes of promotion—not to mention the novelty of being an ice lounge in the middle of the desert.
“[People are] tired of going to the same old ballrooms with the drapes up and the chocolate fountain,” said Noel Bowman, director of operations for both Las Vegas locations. “Now, we’re putting them in ice bars and they’re having a complete experience while they’re doing their group events.”
Drinks and Décor to Suit the Occasion
When Mini Cooper staged an event at the lounge this past year, Minus5 had a full-size car built of ice, replete with details such as a rearview mirror and hood emblem. With the window hollowed out, guests could actually sit in the car and take photos. Other times, King will create specialty cocktails for the occasion, such as the Bill-a-tini when Microsoft stopped by, or the cocktail he created over the summer for Las Vegas headliner Carrot Top, the Heat Miser, a blend of Crown Royal and Coke garnished with a carrot.
“We can pretty much accommodate whatever the people request,” King said, noting that Gin and Tonic or beer drinkers will not be denied their beverage of choice. The emphasis, however, is still on vodkas, and Minus5 has its share, from Ketel One and 3 Olives Bubble Gum to Absolut 100 and Jewel of Russia. They also feature the range of Grey Goose flavored vodkas, perfect for what King calls a “vodka on the rock.” Minus5 carries 24 total vodkas, which range in price from $10 to $35 per shot depending on the brand, pricing that is in line with other lounges in Las Vegas.
“It’s a perfect Martini because it won’t get diluted at all. For those who want a stirred Martini so it won’t bruise the liquor, that’s where you need to be because it’s kept at that [subzero] temperature. The only watering you get is actually from when your lips start to melt the glass down.”
Working with such a fickle substance eventually takes its toll. Bowman estimates they switch out ice sculptures in the lounge every three or four months and re-do the main components of the lounges every year. When the arm of a guitar-playing Elvis Presley ice sculpture at the Mandalay Place location suffered a few too many hugs from excitable fans and eventually fell off, all the ice workers had to do was groove and wet the ice and set it in place again.
“If you sit there with two ice cubes long enough, they will fuse together,” Bowman said. “It’s pretty amazing the way that ice works.”