While many American cities lay legitimate claims to famous cocktails, Chicago seems to have lost their receipts. Historic as they may be, no one really knows if the rum- and port-based Chicago Cocktail or the brandy-based Chicago Fizz were invented behind Second City bars. A search for his town’s definitive civic drink led Paul McGee to the Edgewater Beach, an odd but alluring tiki-leaning recipe with proven Chicago parentage.
In 2018, the Art Institute of Chicago commissioned McGee, co-owner of the award-winning Lost Lake, to develop a menu of cocktails for a reception celebrating the opening of their John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age exhibition. Naturally, McGee sought to represent Chicago’s drinking heritage with his selections, so he began poking around for leads. In the pages of Ted Saucier’s 1951 book Bottoms Up, he happened upon the Edgewater Beach, a mixture of Jamaican rum, Italian vermouth, lemon, sugar, and orange bitters—along with one quarter of a preserved peach.
Though Saucier’s text “gets a bad rap for having a lot of really bad cocktails in it,” according to McGee, the Edgewater Beach appeared readymade for modern consumption, a drink that could appeal to fans of the Daiquiri or Hotel Nacional. And, satisfying McGee’s original goal, it had real Windy City roots, taking its name from the Edgewater Beach Hotel, a long-gone destination renowned for its transportative atmosphere and celebrity clientele.
Comprised of an eight-story, 400-room structure built in 1916, along with an adjoining 18-story tower added in 1924, the hotel was a complex unlike anything the Midwest had seen before. Tropical in theme, it even featured its own private beach on the banks of Lake Michigan, which guests could take advantage of during Chicago’s fleeting warm-weather months. The seafaring atmosphere extended to the Marine Dining Room as well as its so-called Yacht Club, a nautically appointed cocktail lounge complete with a gangplank entrance and automated canvas walls that undulated like the sails on a schooner.
While a rum-based cocktail seems like a natural fit for such a space, the drink actually came to life well before the debut of the Edgewater, albeit under a different name. The story goes that turn-of-the-century thespian William H. Crane invited bartender Gus Williams, a fellow Chicagoan, as a guest to his summer retreat in Cohasset, Massachusetts. There, Williams developed the Cohasset Punch, a drink almost identical to the Edgewater Beach. It was an immediate hit, and Williams wasted no time capitalizing on its popularity at his Chicago bar, Williams & Newman, while also offering a bottled version as early as 1899.
Williams eventually sold his secret formula and the drink made its way onto other Chicago menus, before the Yacht Club saw an opportunity to re-brand the drink as an Edgewater signature—it’s tropical DNA a clutch coincidence.
While hewing closely to the original is important to McGee, he manages to put the Lost Lake stamp on his interpretation. In true tiki fashion, he splits the ounce-and-a half Jamaican rum base between Hampden Estate Overproof, which features prominent stone fruit flavors, and the slightly mellower, Rum-Bar Gold. “The Hampden really complements the peaches, but I didn’t want to overpower all the other ingredients,” he says of his decision. He kept the vermouth component intact, more for its novelty than anything else, noting its rarity in tropical-leaning cocktails: “Not a lot of sours in the tiki canon have sweet vermouth in them,” says McGee. Replacing the called-for lemon with lime, meanwhile, brightens the mix, particularly when shaken with the spent lime hull, as McGee recommends, to draw out more citrus oils.
Despite being seemingly out of step with larger cocktail trends that favor fresh ingredients above all else, there is one element he refuses to substitute: canned peaches. “I wanted to keep it as close to the original recipe as possible,” says McGee.