Paul McGee is one of few bartenders to maintain equal footing in both a classical and tiki approach to drink-making.
As the beverage director for Land and Sea Dept., McGee helms the cocktail programs at the Chicago Athletic Association’s Milk Room, Cherry Circle Room and Game Room—bars renowned for their classic-leaning lists—as well as at Lost Lake, one of the country’s best tiki bars.
McGee has been posted behind the bar since the age of 19—first in Houston and then in Las Vegas, as part of Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group—but it wasn’t until he moved to Chicago, in 2008, that the larger bartending community took notice. Since 2010, McGee has been named Chicago’s best bartender nearly every year by a variety of publications including the Chicago Tribune and Eater.
With the 2013 opening of his much-lauded Three Dots and a Dash, McGee brought tiki into the 21st century and back to a city with a longstanding affinity for tropical drinks. But despite opening two of the nation’s top tiki bars, McGee manages to bring a less-is-more approach to a genre that typically hinges on extravagance.
Here, McGee on the three drinks that define his style.
“Rum River Mystic is a cocktail that bridges the gap between my two interests: classics and tiki. It’s a drink that could just as easily be on the menu in Milk Room as it could at Lost Lake. I love using Bénédictine in spirit-forward cocktails, and I also have a habit of doing lots of split-base recipes. This variation of the Preakness cocktail is named after my friend’s beloved dog, Mister Marmol—a greyhound whose former racing name was Rum River Mystic. I added a bit of rum to this traditionally rye-based cocktail, as well as [Bittermens] Elemakule Tiki Bitters to give it a bit of island spice.”
“I distinctly remember the first time I had the Riviera cocktail—a Toby Maloney drink made with gin, pineapple and Campari—at The Violet Hour in 2008. It was a revelation to me. This was a fun drink to create and really embodies our drink philosophy at Lost Lake: tropical, complex and modern. It’s quite flattering to see this drink being served in other bars and restaurants—including lots of home bars.”
“Our version of the classic frappé is inspired by the Daiquiris served in Havana bars like El Floridita. After returning home from a trip to Havana, I knew right away that I would have to work on the Daiquiri Frappé build for Lost Lake. It took a long time to get everything right—the flavor, texture and dilution. I actually used Rick Bayless’ ’90s Margarita recipe to solve the problem of too much liquid, and use lots of lime zest and less actual lime juice. Now it’s pretty much the only drink I have at Lost Lake.”