Mixologist Paul McGee of The Whistler

Mixologist Paul McGee of The Whistler
April 2011

Paul McGee came up through the ranks of bartending before the craft cocktail revival, in a time when Manhattans were requested shaken and an Old Fashioned meant a muddled mess topped with club soda. In 1984, at the tender age of 14, he got his start in the hospitality industry washing dishes at a local seafood restaurant in a northern suburb of Houston, Texas. A few years later, he was finally old enough to step behind the bar, where he worked for nine years at Pappa's Seafood House before moving to a Las Vegas.

Once in Las Vegas, McGee spent four years slinging drinks at a number of busy casino bars and nightclubs, including properties at Rio Las Vegas and Bellagio Resort & Casino. In 2003, McGee joined the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, first as a bartender at The Venetian and MGM Grand, then acting as corporate mixologist for restaurants around the country. It was here that McGee soaked up the value of good service behind the bar. A fateful trip to the Windy City with his wife in 2007 hooked McGee on Chicago—the people and the low-key vibe, not to mention its cocktails. McGee and his wife decided to pack up camp and resettle in the Midwest.

In 2008, McGee opened The Whistler in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood with partners Robert Brenner and Billy Helmkamp. Since then, he has been named TimeOut Chicago's Best Bartender (2010), and The Whistler was included in GQ's list of The 25 Best Cocktail Bars in America (2010). McGee prides himself on The Whistler's approachable and affordable cocktail menu. He's even taking the bar's community-center business philosophy to the next level by offering cocktail classes, which focus on assembling an efficient, affordable home bar without sacrificing quality ingredients or proper techniques.

Interview with Mixologist Paul McGee of The Whistler - Chicago IL

Jessica Dukes: How did you get into mixology?
Paul McGee: When I first began bartending in Houston in 1989, I spent a lot of time making Fuzzy Navels, Long Island Iced Teas, and Sex on the Beach cocktails. I moved to Las Vegas, where I tended bar for 11 years; starting out at The Rio in 1997 and moving over to Bellagio in 2000, where I opened a lounge called Caramel. I was there for a year and one of my customers, who worked for Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, lured me away. It was when I was working at restaurants again when I started getting into real craft cocktails.

JD: What drew you to Chicago?
PM: I always thought I'd stay in Las Vegas for a very long time. Then I met my wife, and she had some friends out here. It was while we were visiting that I really got hooked on the city. Las Vegas and Chicago couldn't be any more night and day. Vegas is all about the money and the glitz; there is a big nightlife scene, but there weren't those personal relationships. The whole work ethic here in the Midwest is special; people here work so hard. People in Chicago are doing really cool stuff without needing spending $5 million on concepts. When I first moved here, I realized I’m living this life I always wanted to live: walking down the street to neighborhood restaurants and coffee shops, developing great friendships. Those things were all missing for me in Las Vegas.

JD: How did The Whistler get its start?
PM: I met my partners Robert Brenner and Billy Helmkamp just before The Whistler was set to open. We were really naïve about the whole thing, and our cocktail program came about really serendipitously. The original idea for the bar was a neighborhood beer and shot place with live music. I offered a cocktail menu at first just to see how it would work, and now we are known as a neighborhood bar that just happens to serve great cocktails. I feel we offer a solid drink menu that is approachable and affordable, and the cocktails only take a few minutes to get to you. I pride myself on working hard and fast, and I think were able to execute our menu on a grand scale because of that.

JD: What are some current trends in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
PM: One trend is definitely a focus on quality ingredients, as well as a shift back to the basics—simple drinks that have three of four quality ingredients. I also can’t help but feel that pretty much everything’s already been done, even the whole molecular movement. A cocktail historian friend of mine, Greg Boehm, shared with me a Jello shot recipe from 1890. So even for bartenders to be saying "I’m doing this really cool thing with alginates and Jello"—even that isn’t really brand new.

JD: Is there a cocktail trend that you would most like to see?
PM: A return to simple, three-ingredient cocktails served in a relaxed, unpretentious environment.

JD: What resources do you rely on for mixology?
PM: I read a lot of Cocktail Kingdom’s reprinted cocktail books, and a ton of blogs and message boards. But most importantly, I try to get out and try cocktails at bars not only in Chicago, but also in other cities like New York and San Francisco.

JD: How do you go about constructing a cocktail?
PM: I like going through old cocktail books and looking for recipes that jump out at me. I can usually tell if it’s balanced and sounds great by reading the ingredients, or if there's something there but the recipe just needs a little bit of tweaking, which I try to do without straying too far from the original intent of the cocktail. I definitely have people taste drinks before I put them on the menu, but I also trust my own judgment.

JD: How do you design your bar menu?
PM: I have eight drinks on my menu. With such a short list, it’s very important to have a tight, well-edited representation of spirits. I think its okay for one or two cocktails to be somewhat challenging, but I try to make sure the menu is still approachable. I don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel or load up the menu with a lot of obscure ingredients. Our cocktail program is somewhat seasonal; during the winter, our menu tends to be somewhat whiskey heavy, while during the summer we offer more patio-friendly refreshing cocktails.

JD: By the way, what is Scrappy's? I saw it on one of the little droppers behind the bar.
PM: Scrappy's makes a chocolate bitters out of the Northwest that's not super bitter; it tastes almost like a brownie. I use a couple of drops of Scrappy’s in The 21st Century Cocktail to enhance the chocolate flavor without adding the sweetness of more crème de cacao.

JD: What’s your favorite tool behind the bar?
PM: Ice. Ice is really important. You can buy a $100 bar spoon, but if you don't have the proper ice, it's not all-for-naught. For example, Dutch Kills in New York buys ice from manufacturers in order to get a really crystal clear cube, and the Weather Up program has ice machines that make 300-pound blocks of ice. Ice for a bartender is like fire for a chef. It defines how you control the temperature and the dilution of a cocktail.

JD: What sets you apart from other bars in Chicago?
PM: I think what truly sets us apart from other bars in Chicago is our atmosphere. We are a very relaxed, neighborhood bar with live music that just happens to serve great cocktails. Another difference is that fact that we don’t have a kitchen, unlike Sable or The Violet Hour. Because of that, we make a lot of our own syrups, as well as offer some products from around the country that the other bars who can make just about everything in-house don’t have the chance to carry.

JD: So you don’t have a strict house-made-only policy?
PM: Not at all. We do make a lot of syrups in-house, but we also want to make it somewhat easier on ourselves by using things that are already available. Luckily for us, there are people like Jennifer Colliau at Small Hand Foods and Blair Reynolds at Trader Tiki. I can buy their Pineapple Gomme syrup or Dons Mix instead of spending days making my own. They make much better products than I ever could, so it’s kind of silly for me to do it myself. The house-made stamp sounds really good, but it doesn't necessarily make it better.

JD: Are you involved in the local culinary community at all?
PM: In the summertime we get our herbs from a rooftop garden managed by an after school program for inner-city teens. There's no trade-off for us, but there’s also no substitute for the freshness and quality of the mint and other herbs we buy from them.

JD: What’s your stance on garnish?
PM: I do think that garnish plays an important role in a cocktail. I use garnishes mainly to add an aromatic note to my cocktails. While I feel that the visual impact of the garnish is very important, I also prefer the appearance of a clean drink, so I try to keep my garnishing to a minimum. One of the most popular drinks when we first opened was our Rosemary Collins, which is garnished with a sprig of fresh rosemary. Customers saw us rubbing the rosemary sprig in our palms, releasing the oils. Is the rosemary integral? Absolutely, but the very first impression it makes is a visual one.

JD: What’s next for Chicago mixology?
PM: Now, every restaurant owner wants a cocktail program. I don't think it's a phase. People are going to expect good cocktails everywhere they go from here on out, which I think is fantastic. I think the restaurant bars have gotten a lot better over the last three years. The one thing I feel we're still waiting for is an influx of bar talent from outside of Chicago. I also think that we'll be seeing a lot more regular, neighborhood bars with great cocktail offerings.

JD: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
PM: I would like to see The Whistler expand; open up another spot. I would like to venture out of Chicago a little bit on a part-time basis as well. I love bartending; I love being behind the bar serving drinks and any plans I make for the future will always include that.

JD: What would you change about the way the next generation is learning mixology?
PM: The role of the bartender is about hospitality: you are able to cater to your guests tastes and make them a great drink, and you're also able to talk with your guests about things both inside and outside of the cocktail world. That being said, the thing I would most like to change in regards to the next generation learning mixology would be to have up-and-coming bartenders learn about bartending and hospitality first, and mixology second. We, as bartenders, are the like the hosts of a party every time we're behind the bar. At The Whistler, I try to make sure that everyone feels comfortable, has a drink they really enjoy, and wants to come back again.

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