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 In Three
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.
So what does McGee do when he’s not behind the bar? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his strangest cocktail experiment, best thing he ever drank and the one thing he wishes would disappear from drink lists forever. —Chloe Frechette
Current occupation: Co-owner, Lost Lake and Banana Daiquiri LLC; Beverage Director, Land and Sea Dept.
What do want to be when you grow up? A member of the band KISS.
Best thing you ever drank: The first time I ever tasted bourbon thieved straight from the barrel in a Kentucky rickhouse.
Worst thing you ever drank: A vodka-Redbull in a Las Vegas nightclub just as the sun was rising.
First time you ever got drunk: Houston, Texas, New Year’s Eve, 1987. I was drinking Budweiser with my buddies Matt and Jody. Jody stuck a firecracker in his ass and lit it, but it was a dud so we didn’t have to go to the ER.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be? R.E.M. Murmur.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? I’m obsessed with germancarsforsaleblog.com. I spend about an hour a day looking at it.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? How to delegate.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: In 2009 I was challenged by my friend Stephen Cole of The Violet Hour to make a drink with bone marrow for Chicago Reader’s Cocktail Challenge series. I made a rye and bone marrow Jell-O shot served in a hollowed out femur bone, and called it The Dick Move, because Stephen knew I was vegan at the time.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Golf. I love to get one of the day’s first tee times and play a round in under three hours.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: Maybe not the weirdest, but one of the rudest: Someone once passed a cocktail napkin to me with a recipe written down.
Your favorite bar, and why: One of my favorite bars is Maison Premiere in Brooklyn. The drinks are always fantastic, the atmosphere is immersive without being silly and the service is nice.
Best meal you’ve ever had: I’ve had so many memorable meals, each “the best meal I’ve ever had” for a different reason, but the last great meal I had was at Oriole.
Go-to drink in a cocktail bar: A rye Old-Fashioned or a classic Daiquiri.
Wine bar? Whiskey, neat. Or a glass of sherry.
In a dive bar? Budweiser, preferably on draft.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime: Lay in bed for an entire day, then eat a really greasy cheeseburger. I don’t drink often, so hangovers really get to me.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: The term “house-made.”
The last text message you sent: “I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”