Mixologist Paul McGee; photo courtesy of StarChefs.com
You could say Paul McGee is a master mixologist—and even that would be a understatement. Formerly the brains behind the bars for a number of Las Vegas mainstays, Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group and Chicago’s The Whistler (which he co-founded), the spirit sensei has joined forces with the Melman brothers of Lettuce Entertain you to spearhead the beverage line-up of a new project: an as-yet-unnamed tiki bar, housed underneath another new Melman creation, Bub City, the liquid menu of which McGee will also oversee. McGee, who can currently be found tending bar at RPM Italian, is eager to introduce his understanding of tiki—a true sense of escapism—once the bar opens sometime this fall.
With such an impressive pedigree and dedication to not just drinks, but the drinking experience, who better to share his thoughts on the making the most of your bridal bar tab? Be U Weddings taps McGee’s knowledge on all things cocktails to wow your guests at your Chicagoland reception.
Q: First things first, give us the scoop on Chicago’s new tiki bar.
A: “I hope it will present craft cocktails and tiki differently in Chicago. To me, tiki is all about escapism. In winter, I want to be able to be transformed to an exotic locale and enjoy tropical drinks without traveling to another city or country. In summer, I still want to enjoy exotic drinks, but in a well air-conditioned space. A frozen drink might be on the menu as well in summer.”
The tiki bar comeback as photographed and seen in The New York Times
Q: We love the idea of re-introducing tiki. What attracted you to it?
A: “I caught the tiki bug a couple of years ago, and since then have always wanted to have my own tiki bar. Tiki not only encompasses escapism, but community, sharing and fun. I really want to create a fun atmosphere while taking the drinks and their execution very seriusly. In the end, I want everyone to have a great time!”
Q: Let’s get down to bridal business. How do you work with a bride and groom to create specialty cocktails for the day of so that it incorporates their personalities and wedding style?
A: “First, I find out what the bride and groom typically drink. I start with a specific spirit, whether it be gin, vodka, bourbon, etc. I recommend a lighter, refreshing cocktail than a boozy, spirit-forward cocktail, like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned; you want your guests to enjoy the entire event, you know? I also ask the bride and groom if they are any flavors they don’t like.”
Spirit Secret: Dish out some punches! Typically, an alcoholic punch can be made a couple of days in advance and is easily executed for a large group of people. But don’t skimp on the freezing filler! “Try to have good, quality ice (like Lang Ice here in Chicago) which will melt slower than most store-bought ice,” McGee warns. Take your concoction to the next level, and coordinate its hue with your nuptial color scheme.
Photo courtesy of StyleMePretty.com
Q: What’s the best way to keep the party going, while making sure guests don’t go overboard?
A: “Lower alcohol drinks are perfect for weddings. Vermouths and fortified wines are great ingredients that are low in alcohol, yet provide complexity and flavor in punch or cocktails. An aperol spritz (aperol, sparkling wine, and club soda) is another drink that has great flavor, but lower alcohol content.”
Q: We’ve seen a lot of creativity in drink containers for weddings (the popularity of mason jars comes to mind). What’s a unique vessel you’d like to see drinks served in at a wedding?
A: “The bottled cocktail trend. You can take a drink, carbonate it, and bottle it in small champagne bottles with colorful caps and labels. All of the work is done ahead of time, and it’s a very unique way to present a cocktail!”
Grapefruit, thyme & gin bottled cocktail from CocktailRemedy.net
Q: For our budget-conscious brides, what are your favorite cost-friendly (and still tasty!) beverage ingredients to have on hand at an open bar?
A: “Keep things simple: one type of gin (Broker’s), vodka (Tito’s), Bourbon (Evan Williams), rum (El Dorado) and tequila (Siembra Azul). Higher prices for spirits doesn’t always mean higher quality. Sometimes, the lower-priced products are quality spirits without the fancy packaging!”
Spirit Secret: Leave the liqueurs at home. “You don’t need Kahlua, Bailey’s or Southern Comfort for an open bar,” McGee says.
Q: Many couples are opting to offer customizable stations, whether it’s a choose your own cigar spot, ice cream sundae making station, or even a beer tasting bar. How could you create a customizable cocktail station?
A: “A fun idea would be to have an Old Fashioned station. You could use different spirits, sweeteners and bitters to create totally different versions of the original (i.e. rum Old Fashioned, gin Old Fashioned).”
Q: For our brides intrigued by your tiki inspiration, what tips should they keep in mind to discuss with their venue’s bartender or mixologist?
A: “All great tiki drinks should be balanced—not too sweet and not too sour. Tiki drinks are usually very approachable, but also have several layers of flavor and are less subtle than other craft cocktails. There should be elements of fruit, citrus and spice.”
Spirit Secret: Ensure your bartender spares a heavy hand with the syrup: tiki drinks are not supposed to be sugar bombs. And avoid the “Zombie,” McGee says. “Don’t drink more than one of those, or you will be asking for trouble. That drink has 4 oz of rum in it!”
Q: What’s the one drink everyone should serve at their nuptials?
A: “A champagne cocktail. One bitter-soaked sugar cube dropped in a flute and filled with champagne.”
Champagne cocktail photo courtesy of MarthaStewart.com
All right, you heard the man! McGee also suggests creating a distinction between the cocktail hour and the reception by switching up the beverage selections. Serve a champagne cocktail (or a simple, signature drink) during the first hour, as long as it’s something you can get into guests’ hands quickly; then, provide more options with an open bar during the reception.
What are you looking forward to sipping at your wedding? Any favorite specialty drinks you’ve come across? Spill your details in our comments section below, and be sure to keep tabs on Paul McGee as we wait for the arrival of Chicago’s tiki bar!