Raising the Bar: Paul McGee

Last year, when the news broke that bearded barman Paul McGee was leaving Chicago’s The Whistler, which bills itself as a bar, gallery, record label and music venue, there was a public outcry.

It’s understandable, given the popularity of his Sunday-afternoon bartending classes and monthly book-club series paying homage to vintage cocktail tomes.

McGee, who started slinging Frozen Margaritas at 19 in a Houston seafood restaurant, did not anticipate that the arty watering hole on a then-bleak street in Logan Square would become a top mixology destination. During The Whistler’s first evening in business, he gave away Pabst Blue Ribbon to friends and family; by his final shift, guests clamored for 500 cocktails a night.

But fortunately, McGee was staying in the Windy City and working on a new venture, a River North tiki joint in collaboration with Jerrod and RJ Melman of the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant empire.

Located below the Melmans’ country-and-western eatery Bub City—McGee dreamed up its beverage list as well—the soon-to-open Three Dots and a Dash promises to be a refined tropical haven, on par with New York’s PKNY and San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove.

“Chicago has a great drinking culture, and it’s cold most of the year. How did we not have a craft tiki bar, one that took those classic drinks back to the way they used to be?” a baffled McGee wondered.

Naturally, patrons will gravitate toward his well-made Mai Tai, Zombie or Scorpion Bowl, but McGee also plans to enlighten imbibers with obscure tiki creations like the namesake Three Dots and a Dash, a 1940s Don the Beachcomber recipe that references World War II-era Morse code. In addition, original concoctions like the Tall as a Tree and Twice as Shady (Scotch, batavia arrack, orgeat, lemon juice, pineapple juice) will pepper the menu.

“People are not tired of drinking pre-Prohibition cocktails,” McGee assures me. “But it’s gotten too serious. Drinks should be delicious—some straightforward, some complex with layers of flavor. It’s about sharing and having fun.”

Three Dots and a Dash, outfitted with antique poles from the now-closed Chicago Trader Vic’s, is reminiscent of the tiki palaces of yesteryear. Think of it, McGee says, “like the luau you used to get dressed up for.”

Three Dots and a Dash

Contributed by Paul McGee

  • 1 oz Demerara rum
  • 1 oz Amber rhum agricole
  • .75 oz Lime juice
  • .5 oz Orange juice
  • .5 oz Honey syrup (one part honey, one part water)
  • .75 oz Falernum
  • 1 tsp Allspice liqueur
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • Garnish: Pineapple stick, three cherries, swizzle stick and pineapple leaves
  • Glass: Tiki mug

Add all the ingredients and 8 ounces (1 cup) of ice to a blender. Blend for 5 seconds and pour into a tiki mug. Add additional crushed ice to fill the mug if desired. Garnish with a pineapple stick, three cherries, a swizzle stick and pineapple leaves.

Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.

(Photo courtesy Anjali Pinto)

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