Ask Paul McGee about the Fog Cutter, one of Trader Vic’s hallmark drinks from the 1940s, and he’ll tell you the original recipe is just, well, “fine.”
In typical Trader Vic fashion, the Fog Cutter—a.k.a. Samoan Fog Cutter—calls on a multi-spirit base of rum, Cognac and gin, as well as two types of citrus, a sherry float and orgeat. “The challenge was coming up with the right proportions of those three base spirits,” McGee says of retooling the drink before putting it on the menu at Chicago’s Lost Lake.
Known for his seemingly incongruous less-is-more approach to tiki, McGee brings a certain focus to a genre prone to producing overly busy drinks. “We have a saying at Lost Lake, where if we’re workshopping a drink and something isn’t great, we’ll say, ‘It tastes like a tiki drink,'” he explains. “You really have to be honest with yourself and say: ‘Is this a great cocktail? Or is this just something that tastes tropical?'”
With three different base spirits, bright citrus and oxidative sherry, the Fog Cutter can come off as disjointed, but McGee brings it into relief by tilting the axis of the drink even more towards rum. “To me, it’s more of a rum drink than a gin or Cognac drink,” he says.
Where the original recipe calls simply on light rum, the Lost lake version opts for Neisson Élevé Sous Bois, an agricole rhum aged for 18 months in French oak, which softens the edges of the drink and complements the Cognac. “Using a light rum as the base didn’t really do it for me,” he explains, “even though it’s a completely balanced drink, the complexity wasn’t there.”
Next, McGee dials back the citrus, knocking the lemon juice down from two ounces to one, and subbing in a measure of dry Curaçao for orange juice. “I hate orange juice in cocktails,” he says. “It’s not tart, it’s not bright; it usually just adds a lot of water content without having that orange flavor.” Omitting the orange juice and replacing it with a dry liqueur required upping the orgeat, while still maintaining the tartness of the original. “This should not be a sweet drink by any means,” says McGee.
Bumping up the orgeat from a half-ounce to three-quarters of an ounce inspired the sherry choice, too. The original recipe calls for cream sherry or simply “sherry,” but McGee landed on a dry amontillado, which he incorporates into the drink rather than floating it on top. Finally, for proper dilution of the boozy base, McGee buzzes the whole mixture with a cup of crushed ice for a few seconds in a Hamilton Beach stand-up mixer before topping the drink with an additional cup of crushed ice.
“I love a simple three-ingredient cocktail more than anybody, but I think the challenge with tiki is to make something that is cohesive and complex without the flavors being muddled,” says McGee of working with more baroque tiki blueprints. “That can be a bigger challenge than making a perfect Daiquiri or Gimlet.”