Paul McGee leaving the Whistler for River North Melman project
Thu Jan 5 2012
Photograph: Jamie Berg
Paul McGee—Time Out Chicago's Best Bartender 2010, style icon, source of wisdom—is leaving the bar where Chicagoans have come to know and love him, the Whistler. And much to the surprise of his hipster fan base, he's departing to join RJ and Jerrod Melman as they carry out their conquest of River North. "It's going to be bigger than the Whistler, and it's going to be awesome," said McGee over the phone. Jerrod Melman was similarly excited: "I think he's the best mixologist in the city, maybe the country," he said. "For me it's one of the things we're most excited about."
But how did this happen? And why? About six months ago, Paris Club's general manager, who is a former colleague of McGee's wife and publicist, Shelby Allison, invited the bartender in to talk to the Melman brothers about cocktails. "It just blossomed from there," says McGee. "But that was the thing: It wasn't until they had a space in mind that they were like, 'What do you think?' And that was much later." Both the Melmans and McGee are tight-lipped on what the details of that space will be, but it will be in River North, it will open this summer, and it may (but may not) (but probably will) involve some sort of food. That said, it will be "bar-focused," asserts Jerrod. He mysteriously adds that the concept is "something the city is missing."
As for the Whistler, owner Billy Helmkamp sent an email this morning announcing that on February 2, McGee will be "handing over the reigns of the cocktail program to Rob [Brenner], Billy, and long-time Whistler bartender Eric Henry. You can continue to expect the classic Whistler cocktails you’ve come to know and love, as well as some new and exciting creations." In addition to handing over responsibilities for the cocktails, McGee will no longer be a partner in the Whistler, though the split with Helmkamp and Brenner appears to be amicable. "Billy and Robert and [Paul and I] are great friends, and will remain so," Allison told TOC. "We live right down the street form them, and we look forward to visiting the Whistler as much as anybody else now." In an email to friends and media, McGee reinforced this point. "My partners at the Whistler, Robert Brenner and Billy Helmkamp, remain great friends, and the wonderful and extremely capable staff of The Whistler will continue the great work we’ve done together since the beginning," he wrote.
McGee's last day at the Whistler will be the final installment of Book Club, the monthly cocktail book–inspired night, on Feburary 1.