Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
"A tiki drink is anything that transports you to a tropical place," explains Paul McGee, owner and head bartender at Chicago's newest tropical watering hole Three Dots and a Dash.
Guests enter Three Dots through a back alley, climb down a dark staircase (with a wall full of skulls staring creepily) and into the tropical basement bar. Many of the fixtures are genuine pieces of tiki history, bought at auction from the original Trader Vic's in the Palmer House Hotel that opened in 1957. The bar is hung with grasses, edible flowers are everywhere, exotica is playing on the soundtrack, and the whole place, McGee explains, is designed to take you away. "It's supposed to be a little tongue in cheek, a good place to go out on a date or bring your parents—they'll definitely get it."
McGee first started mixing in a warm climate, but the bar wasn't anything like this. At his first job in Houston in 1989, "My Mai Tai recipe was a shot of any white rum in the house and a bunch of fruit juices, sour mix and a dash of grenadine on top," McGee remembers. "That was the recipe for any tropical drink." Now, he has more than 150 rums to play with, along with homemade syrups, freshly squeezed fruit juices, and an array of garnishes that includes a banana dolphin carved to order.
Before opening Three Dots, McGee was well known as the mixologist at The Whistler, a craft cocktail bar in Logan Square. He started a popular event called "book club," where the bar's menu would feature all drinks from one cocktail recipe book. By far, the most popular were the nights based on Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry's tiki books. "We transformed the bar with red lights, lots of edible flowers, and it became a very different animal. It was so much fun, people dressed up. It really took people someplace else, and we did gangbuster business," says McGee.
After McGee made headlines for his work at The Whistler, Lettuce Entertain You came knocking. "The Melmans [the sons of LEYE founder Rich Melman] came to me and asked 'If you came to work for us full time, what you you do?' I said I'd do a tiki bar. Then I didn't hear from them for months, and I assumed that I scared them off with the Tiki pitch," McGee explains with a smile. While the Melmans may not have been on board at first, after a chance visit to some of London's famed Tiki bars, they came back and asked McGee to come on board.
Since the reboot of Trader Vic's closed in 2009, Chicago has been without a serious tiki spot. McGee thinks this is because, well, Tiki takes a ton of work. "You're making so many different syrups, the garnishes alone, it's supposed to be over the top," McGee explained. "It's not easy to execute. I don't think you can do Tiki on a tight budget. It's intensive. We can have 240 people in here, and making drinks with 9 ingredients off a menu with 20 drinks on it is a daunting task."
Half of the menu is made up of classic tiki cocktails, and their provenance is spelled out: years of origin, names of inventors, and featured ingredients are all mentioned. "I think it's really important to let people know who these guys were, what their importance was, and their contribution to classic tiki drinks," McGee insists. "Most of these guys are the ones who paved the way: Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic, Stephen Crane." In addition to the classics, McGee has invented a slew of new tiki cocktails. Which begs the question: What, exactly, is a tiki drink? "Big bold flavors are typically what is present in tiki drinks," explains McGee. "They aren't subtle. They are in your face. Think about the Aloha Mexico—it's a drink made with genever and tequila. Those ingredients aren't tiki. But the way the flavors come together take you somewhere else."