It seems like the world is Paul McGee’s thatched tiki bar, ever since the celebrated bartender left Chicago’s The Whistler in 2012 to start up the tiki-minded Three Dots and a Dash.
Based in the Windy City, McGee wasn’t always known for colorful tropical drinks—though anyone who visited The Whistler during one of the many tiki nights he hosted during his tenure there from 2008 to 2012 might suggest that the bamboo-stenciled writing was on the wall all along. Since then, McGee’s reputation as a tiki guru has grown as copiously as his beard.
In addition to racking up a slew of local “best bartender/best bar” awards from the Chicago Tribune, Eater Chicago, Time Out Chicago and Chicago magazine, the tiny umbrella on the Mai Tai officially arrived in 2014, when Three Dots and a Dash was named the Best New American Cocktail Bar at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans. By the end of the same year, McGee had announced plans to open a new tiki bar, Lost Lake in Logan Square, not far from his old stomping grounds at The Whistler.
We talked with McGee about the art of making tiki and tropical drinks in 2015, the many sub-genres of tiki and whether Chicago is big enough for two tiki palaces.
You’ve really become known for elevated tiki drinks. How did this become your thing?
Back in 2011, I was hosting a monthly cocktail party based on a revolving selection of cocktail books. One month, I featured Jeff Berry’s book Beachbum Berry Remixed. Jeff is the tiki guru—and savior of many nearly lost recipes—and it was by way of his writing and research that I first met and fell in love with the mixology traditions of classic tiki cocktails, especially those of Don the Beachcomber. I hosted several more of those cocktail parties focused on tiki books before writing my first all-original tiki menu, which of course lead to me dreaming about an entire bar devoted to exploring tiki recipes.
Tell us all about your new venture, Lost Lake.
Lost Lake is a tiki bar that attempts to evoke the spirit and style of Don the Beachcomber’s first location. We’re located in a neighborhood (just a block from my house, actually!) that is filled with incredible restaurants and bars, and we serve a menu of classic and original tiki cocktails. We have a deep rum list, as well, with over 275 selections. Our staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and can just as soon make you a classic cocktail as they can whisk you away on a mini-tropical-vacation via a wildly garnished tiki drink.
How is Lost Lake different from Three Dots and a Dash? What made you decide to open a second tiki palace in Chicago?
Three Dots and a Dash is a huge, glamorous, tropical nightclub right downtown. When I left to open Lost Lake, I was in search of a more intimate experience—not only for our guests, but also for myself and my staff. Being tucked away in a neighborhood, we’re able to deliver the same quality of cocktail in a laid-back, everyday environment. The people that eat and drink in Logan Square and Avondale are always game to try something new and adventurous, and it’s allowed us to be a little more daring. The size of the bar also allows our bartenders to make real connections with the folks that visit us, and to have those conversations that create rum lovers. At Lost Lake, we’re not just slinging drinks; we’re tending to the bar and everyone in it.
I’ve heard rumblings that you went on a “rum fact-finding mission” before opening Lost Lake. What was that about, and what did you find?
Well, I didn’t specifically go on a rum fact-finding mission, but I was lucky enough to do quite a bit of traveling last year. I visited Panama, Colombia, Barbados, Saint Lucia, and the incredible Martinique, the latter two as the guest of the inimitable Ed Hamilton. I walked through cane fields, toured distilleries, and talked with rum makers and blenders. I learned so much. And of course, drinking rum on a rum-producing island is an experience that just can’t be replicated—though we give it our best shot every night at Lost Lake.
What drink shouldn’t be missed at Lost Lake?
From our current menu, I’d say the Lost Lake and the Punch Vieux. Our namesake cocktail is a great example of what we’re trying to do with our original recipes. It begins as a riff on a classic tiki recipe (the Jungle Bird), and features those hallmark tiki ingredients you always hope to see (Jamaican rum, fresh pineapple juice and passion fruit syrup). It then takes a little twist with the addition of Campari and maraschino liqueur. We’re serving it in a custom printed, frosted Collins glass that features the cocktail’s recipe. The Punch Vieux is a Ti Punch made with aged rhum agricole, and serves as a message to our guests that they can and should feel totally comfortable ordering classic rum drinks—or any brown and stirred cocktail, really.
What are you working on next?
Right now, I’m hard at work on three menus and a spirit program for the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel as the beverage director for Land and Sea Dept., the creative group operating all three food and beverage outlets on the main floor of the hotel.
The universe of tiki and tropical drinks—and places to enjoy them—has really expanded over the past few years. It seems to span from kitschy to sophisticated, and it’s no longer just the Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic canon being featured. What’s your take on the art of making tiki and tropical drinks in 2015?
Tropical cocktails are having a wonderful moment in the spotlight. Nearly every bar I visit has one tiki drink hiding somewhere on the menu. That’s definitely something I did not see prior to 2011. The availability of incredible rums and access to tropical fruits, whether through purees or shrubs, allows us to recreate tropical flavors with freshness—even in the middle of a Midwestern winter.
As Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove pointed out when we opened Lost Lake, tiki is now at the point in its revival where we can begin opening tiki bars that focus on particular moments in the trend’s first 70-year run. For us, it’s that late 1930s bamboo era-bar, where as a place like Jeff Berry’s Latitude 29, it’s all about the Tiki Pop heyday.
The great thing about making tiki cocktails in 2015 is the access we have to amazing spirits and liqueurs. The challenge remains the same as it does with any cocktail genre: How many times can you reinvent the wheel?
When I create a new cocktail, I usually start with a classic recipe and riff from there. With so many varieties of every spirit available, just switching up the brand can lead you in a whole new direction. When it comes to adapting a classic recipe, I adjust it to suit my palate, which is pretty dry. But I don’t serve it if I can’t get it to a place where I think it tastes amazing without veering too far from the original.
Last question: For making great tiki drinks, what ingredient or tool can’t you live without?
I cannot live without my Hamilton Beach DrinkMaster or good quality cubelet-style crushed ice.
Kara Newman is a New York–based spirits and cocktail writer, and author of Cocktails for a Crowd (Chronicle Books).