You are here: Home>Collections

Chicago goes tiki

New spots mean an increased focus on rum

March 14, 2012|Emily Van Zandt | RedEye

Maybe it was the bottle of Bacardi you helped drain in college. Maybe it was years of ordering Captain and Cokes that did it. Or maybe it was the experimental fruit punch you mixed.

Whatever the cause, at some point you probably stopped drinking rum. And Paul McGee wants to change that.

McGee, best known in Chicago for his years spent shaking craft cocktails at Logan Square's The Whistler, is set to open an as-yet-unnamed River North tiki bar this summer and if you aren't drinking rum now, you certainly will then. Tiki drinks are recognizable by their heavy use of the spirit distilled from sugarcane or sugarcane-byproducts (such as molasses), as well as fresh juices, fruit garnishes, colorful glassware and maybe even a drink umbrella or two.

They may be dramatic, but these cocktails are not to be taken lightly.

"[Tiki cocktail pioneers] Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber came about in the mid-to-late `30s and they were using fresh ingredients and really complex ingredients in their drinks as far as heavy doses of cinnamon and cloves and allspice," McGee says. "Things we thought 10 or 15 years ago were a culinary revolution in cocktails, these guys were doing that in the 1930s."

By the `50s, tiki bars had become a full-blown American fad.

The first step in making a solid tiki drink like the mai tai or zombie is the selection of rum -- and the choices are seemingly endless.

"A light rum is going to be a little more neutral," said McGee, who explains that light rum is filtered through charcoal to remove much of the color and a bit of the flavor. "When you get into more aged rums ... these are going to be a little bit more for sipping, with more a molasses note to them. For [the classic rum drink] dark and stormy, you'd want something like this with more character and more flavor."

And then there's spiced rum -- heavy with vanilla, allspice and cinnamon notes -- which McGee likes to swap in for whiskey when he makes an old fashioned.

Still not ready to make the leap? Pull up a barstool and take this advice from Chicago-based rum writer and importer Ed Hamilton, who runs the website "The Ministry of Rum."

"Don't try this at home on your own, folks," Hamilton said. "I recommend finding a bartender or liquor store person who is knowledgeable."

When he's not hitting spots such as Painkiller (aka PKNY) in New York or Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco, Hamilton likes to drop by The Whistler, The Barrelhouse Flat or Sable Kitchen & Bar for rum cocktails, or Bottom Lounge for its extensive rum selection.

"[Tiki cocktails] are difficult to make. It takes time to make good ones," Hamilton said of the lack of bars in town keeping the drinks on their menu. "You can get a mai tai or some of these drinks at some of these other really crappy bars ... and that's why tiki isn't doing better. You have to use the right rums. Real syrups. And the bartenders have to be trained. It takes some dedication."

In addition to McGee's upcoming River North tiki haven, Graham Elliot plans to feature some cocktails "focused on Hawaii and a tiki-kinda theme" at his latest restaurant G.E.B., slated to open in May in the West Loop.

"Everyone's had the classic drinks and everyone's had speakeasy whatever," says Elliot, who lived in Hawaii for several years while growing up. "I think it's just great to branch off and to realize that it was such a cool time in the `50s, with people experimenting and doing these drinks as Hawaii was becoming a state."

The Whistler plans to continue the tiki tradition that McGee started while he was at the bar. Co-owner Billy Helmkamp recently introduced a rotating tiki section to the menu with a new cocktail each week. The first cocktail featured was called Free Rider, a mix of Lemon Heart 151 rum, Benedictine, Fernet Branca, pineapple, lime juice and angostura bitters.

 "All these really fantastic tiki bars started opening up [around the country] a couple years ago and I don't know what wave of tiki it is now ... maybe the fourth wave?" Helmkamp says. "I think that rum is getting more popular due to the fact that people are starting to get these really great cocktails that are complex and well-balanced. You can bring a whiskey or vodka drinker over to rum with that." | @redeyedrinks. Additional reporting by Lisa Arnett.

RedEye Chicago Articles