On a cold weekday afternoon, Chicago dived into mixologist Paul McGee’s latest cocktail bar, Lost Lake. Safe, warm, and sheltered inside the tropical bar, McGee talked tiki, Lost Lake's future, and an actual booze cruise he took in the name of research.
Why do you think tiki is having this moment?
Tiki is really big right now because the cocktail world has taken itself really seriously. For a while, you made your Old Fashioned or you went to a place with a bunch of rules where you couldn’t do this or you could do this. Tiki goes against the grain of the pre-Prohibition cocktails. You get into eight, nine, ten ingredient drinks, and then you put it in a coconut or a pineapple. This is the way for craft cocktails to progress.
At the same time, you have to give historical context and significance for tiki. You can’t just start from ground zero and say “Welcome to my tiki bar.” Tiki is one of the longest drinking fads in history.
If people liked your last bar, Three Dots and a Dash, what will they find different about Lost Lake?
With Three Dots and a Dash, we had a chance to do a rum bar—a tiki bar—that harkened back to the days of Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber and Kon Tiki Ports, all while pumping out 1600 drinks a night. Lost Lake is a smaller place, a neighborhood bar. It’s meant to feel like the neighborhood where we’re located. You walk in and know that this is a place run by a person with a passion for rum and tiki cocktails. I love that feeling. You feel that in a bunch of different neighborhood bars. Billy Sunday [in Logan Square] is one.
In terms of the menu, there’s a good mix of tropical fruit drinks and richer drinks mixed with coconut. I’m also using the building blocks from the founding fathers of tiki, so there are some spice profiles reminiscent of Don the Beachcomber. But then I’ve tossed in some drinks with mezcal, different amari, and certain vermouths that Trader Vic would never have used.
Can you talk about the rum fact-finding mission you went on?
There’s a rum expert, Ed Hamilton, who produces a line of rums himself and imports them in from different countries. When he lived in Chicago, he’d always come into the Whistler. He taught me how to make a proper ti’ punch, which is a drink that’s made in Martinique. So we struck up a relationship, but at some point he moved away. Then he called me up and said, “Hey I’m chartering this boat, I’m thinking about bringin’ you and your wife and another couple. Let’s go to St. Lucia and Martinique.”
I said, “Ok, yeah, definitely.”
We spent eight days there living on the boat, traversing the island, and visiting distillers in Martinique and in St. Lucia. Rum is this renegade spirit, so you get some variation in the process. Martinique’s rums are made with fresh cane juice, which produces these really raw, earthy rums. Some of my favorite rums are from there. We serve a ti’ punch (the Punch Vieux) with an aged agricole (cane syrup rum) that softens it up a bit. We pour it with a hint of lime, a little bit of cane syrup. We serve ours with a big chunk of ice to mellow it out. But in Martinique, the drink is three ounces of 100-proof rum with a little hint of lime and a little hint of sugar.
Are there any favorites from your collection?
We have a historic rum called Black Tot from the last ration served to the British Royal Navy. The Royal Navy received a daily allotment of rum until July 31, 1970, which is now known as Black Tot Day.
What’s everyone ordering at Lost Lake?
For the first few weeks it was our namesake drink, the Lost Lake. Recently it’s been overtaken by the Tic-Tac-Taxi. It’s in our frozen drink machine and made with couple different rums, then coconut, lime, and passion fruit. We serve it in a coconut. There’s also a classic cocktail from the Ambassador Hotel nightclub in Los Angeles. It’s called the Cocoanut Grove Cooler. It had blended scotch, and all these tropical things—lemon juice, fresh pineapple, passion fruit, a little bit of pomegranate and orgeat. I thought “Man, this sounds great on paper.” It’s this weird tropical drink with this smoky taste. We serve it in a parrot.
What can we expect next from Lost Lake?
We recently released our own beer (Lost Lake Exotica Ale). We worked with Tim Lang from Marz Brewing and designed this beer to go specifically with rum. It doesn’t have a lot of hops. It’s malty in character. It’s easy drinking but not a light beer by any means. We wanted a beer that wouldn’t take away from rum. We may also have some changes to the menu as the seasons change. It’s really a shame that spring is so short.