In our rambling conversation about the debut cocktail menu he's put together at Chicago's Bub City, beverage director Paul McGee brought up a provocative article that appeared this month on Table Matters. In "Bartenders: Stop Making (Up) Cocktails," D.C.-based cocktailian and writer Derek Brown makes a case for craft over creativity.
"Too often," Brown writes, "bartenders, rather than sharpening our axes, studying, searching and trying to find meaning among the thousands of cocktails already created, the neophyte—and even sometimes seasoned veterans, I'm afraid—indulge in the worst possible fantasy: that of some mixological Prometheus who steals the eternal flame of creativity from the old, stuffy Gods and re-imagines it as lavender-infused ice or cinnamon-ancho rim. The unfortunate result is that it's our liver and not theirs that is forever picked at by these often vile and outlandish combinations." Brown admits he too has been guilty of such crimes, pointing to his circa-1990s Hot Cosmo.
Besides being an interesting and humorous read, Brown's argument, whether you agree with it or not, provides an apt context in which to consider what McGee's up to at Bub City. (McGee, formerly the longtime head bartender of the Whistler, is a partner in the restaurant along with heads of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group.) Although neither had any direct influence on the other, it's almost as if McGee was channeling Brown when he wrote the bourbon-stained drink list (all cocktails are $10) at the Nashville-inspired BBQ joint, whiskey bar, and live country-music venue. There's a strong emphasis on approachable, food-friendly classic cocktails with no fussy flourishes, and bold, resonant flavors.
For the most part, the concise classics that find a home here bear small but meaningful interventions. So the Manhattan includes Amaro Ramazzotti and Bittercube sarsaparilla bitters made exclusively for Bub City. The Horse's Neck features a well-chosen ginger ale from South Carolina. The Mexican Firing Squad is reimagined as a frozen drink. And the original drinks, such as the Riverboat Gambler, feel of a piece with the rest.
In addition to the cocktails, McGee has stocked the two bars flanking the broad dining room at Bub City with more than 100 varieties of whiskey, a few of which are single-barrel bourbons he hand-picked at their distilleries over this past summer. They're even carrying small-format bottles of 150th Anniversary Early Times, which parties can order with pitchers of beer to make their own Boilermakers.
So should we take the debut cocktail menu at Bub City as a sign that McGee is happy mining the classics, favoring a rote dedication to craft over creativity? Not so fast. Because in eight weeks' time, the doors are slated to open at Three Dots and a Dash, the subterranean tiki bar under construction beneath Bub City that is his brainchild. Tiki drinks are nothing if not elaborate, and McGee says he'll feature several of his own devising at Three Dots and a Dash, alongside some established mainstays of the style as well as a few sharable numbers. But knowing McGee, and in light of the restraint shown at Bub City, we don't expect anything he has in mind is in danger of following in the footsteps of the Hot Cosmo.
McGee gave us a peek at all the cocktails at Bub City. Check them out in the slideshow above »