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Even though we’ve seen photos of Paul McGee without his distinctive beard, we’ve always wondered if that was the secret to his Samson-like strength as a bartender.
If he ever shaved it off, rather than reach for his freshly squeezed citrus juices, would he opt for pre-made sour mixes? Would he change the Three Dots and a Dash concept completely and start serving blue drinks in fishbowls with grenadine filled plastic sharks?
Luckily, the beard seems to be staying attached. When you’re putting your face on tiki mugs, we think that his signature look may be staying around for some time.
McGee’s bartending career started innocently enough. As an 18-year old server at Pappas Seafood House in Houston, Texas, he noticed that the bartenders were having more fun at work. When a bartending position opened up when he was 19, he made the move.
After working at the restaurant for nine years, McGee moved to Las Vegas, where he worked at a variety of establishments before landing at Wolfgang Puck Dining Group. Within the group, he worked at Postrio in the Venetian and Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill in the MGM Grand before helping to open up new restaurants in Las Vegas, D.C., Detroit and Beaver Creek, Colorado as the group’s corporate mixologist.
In 2008, he moved to Chicago to help open the Whistler, one of the bars that helped shape the city’s craft cocktail scene. In 2012, he left to join Lettuce Entertain You, where he oversees the cocktail programs at RPM Italian, Paris Club, Bub City, and, of course, Three Dots and a Dash.
We talked to McGee about his cocktail making approach, the most important skill bartenders can have and what you should drink at Three Dots right now.
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My approach to making cocktails doesn't really change, except when it comes to Three Dots and a Dash. My style has typically been clean flavors, classic builds and a “less is more” philosophy. I definitely take those values with me when I'm working on cocktails at RPM, Paris Club and Bub City.
But, I've made a huge departure from that aesthetic with my tiki drinks. At Three Dots and a Dash, I still use some of my old tricks (splitting base spirits, etc.), and I still try to achieve as much flavor and complexity with as few ingredients as possible. But when it comes to tiki, it's all relative. I've got cocktails on my menu there that have four ingredients, like Rum River Mystic, and cocktails with eight ingredients, like Poipu Beach Boogie Board.
How have you approached the cocktail programs at each restaurant?
Lettuce has some very big, very busy restaurants, and being able to deliver craft cocktails on a scale like that is very challenging, so my main goal was to make sure that my cocktails were being executed properly.
As far as approaching the cocktails differently at different properties, there are two answers: My sensibilities stay the same, no matter where I'm writing menus. I always insist on quality spirits, fresh ingredients and a clean aesthetic. As far as finding the identity for each menu, that's actually pretty easy as each of the restaurants I work with have very distinct cuisines. At RPM Italian, I get to work with lots of Italian ingredients; at Paris Club, I reach for more cognacs and sparkling wines; and at Bub City, I curated an amazing whiskey selection.
What do you drink on your night off?
While I do truly enjoy a rye old fashioned, and will always order that if I'm having a cocktail, the more truthful answer is Diet Coke.
What's a drink that you made that you thought would be a hit but didn't catch on?
I made a cocktail at the Whistler called Rum Dock. It was a brown and stirred cocktail, with a couple different types of rum and allspice liqueur. I think people looked at the ingredients and thought it would be a refreshing cocktail, but when it was served to them over a big chunk of ice they were pretty confused by it. I think the reason for that was the name of the drink—I should have been very clear that it was basically a rum old fashioned.
What’s trending in cocktails?
Low-alcohol cocktails with tons of flavor, using sherry, fortified wine, aperitif wine, port, madeira and the like.
What’s one cocktail that people should drink now, why?
Ti Punch at Three Dots and a Dash. It's such a simple cocktail (roughly a rhum agricole old fashioned with a tiny bit of citrus) and it's a great opportunity to try a style of rum that not too many people are familiar with.
What's the most important skill a bartender should have?
Patience. Patience is important for two major reasons: It allows you to give each drink the attention it deserves, and to give each guest the attention they deserve. It helps you avoid becoming harried and dismissive when answering guests' questions or offering cocktail suggestions. Patience helps you to always be hospitable.