Paul McGee: The Exit Interview
By Roger Kamholz in Food on Feb 1, 2012 8:00PM
This evening marks bartender Paul McGee's last shift behind the stick at the Whistler. McGee announced last month that he's leaving to oversee the bar program of a forthcoming Melman brothers project, slated to open later this year. To commemorate the night, McGee will host the final installment of the bar's monthly exploration of cocktail literature, the Book Club series. The theme will be "best of tiki," gathering his favorite 12 cocktails from the six tiki menus presented over Book Club's long run, one of which—entitled "A House Without a Key"—featured tiki cocktails of McGee's own devise.
We spoke with McGee recently about his time at the Whistler. Our conversation (edited for length and clarity) touched on many of his favorite memories, proudest accomplishments and hilarious moments from the three and a half years he spent heading up this unlikely, much-loved cocktail destination.
McGee and his wife, Shelby Allison, moved to Chicago from Las Vegas about a month before the Whistler opened on September 26, 2008. Leading up to its opening, the co-owners, Billy Helmkamp and Rob Brenner, had envisioned the Whistler as a combination art/music venue to complement their music-production business, Whistler Records. They knew McGee, who's now been a professional bartender for 22 years, through a mutual friend and had invited him to run the Whistler's small bar, a late addition to the overall plans simply intended to help finance the venue's main artistic endeavors. "I hijacked that a little bit by putting the cocktail menu out," McGee says with a laugh. "But, we had no idea of knowing that we were going to be doing that many cocktails. I mean, I thought we were going to be doing 25 or 30 cocktails [per night], and now we're up to over 400 on a busy night."
McGee recalls that, back in 2008, the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue around the bar was far more desolate than it is today. The likes of Revolution Brewing and Longman & Eagle were still years away from existence. From the beginning, patronizing the Whistler meant first seeking it out. But, it wasn't long before veteran establishments in the community such as Lula Café began to throw their support behind the bar. Another early and vocal supporter was Chicago's other cocktail destination, the then year-old Violet Hour. "I have to give thanks to the guys at the Violet Hour for referring people to come over to our place," McGee says. "Those guys really loved our bar, and they would always come in on their nights off—the bartenders and the rest of the staff—and I know that they sent a lot of people our way. That was really exciting for us."
Former Violet Hour bartenders Stephen Cole and Ira Koplowitz (now running Barrelhouse Flat and Bittercube, respectively) visited the Whistler during its second week in operation and, McGee recalls, "had a lot of constructive things to say to us about how we could do things a little bit better," and challenge themselves to be more ambitious with the Whistler's cocktail program. "We discovered some new cocktails together, just by going through some books. In the first few months, it was pretty slow [he laughs], so it was nice to have some guidance from those guys. They'd been doing it for about a year prior. They saw us getting busier and busier, and gave us some tips on how to do things a little differently than we were doing."
While their advice and support was invaluable, the fact remained that the creative demands of the Whistler's burgeoning, increasingly popular cocktail program fell largely on McGee's shoulders. "It was a lot of me learning on my own," he says. "I got sucked into the cocktail scene three years prior to [the launch of the Whistler], and I really just read blog after blog after blog, and read as many books as I could get my hands on. I had a little bit in the tank there, but as you go, I would spend eight hours a week, just being on the internet, just checking out what other people are doing, and checking out new techniques. 'Why are you using this kind of ice?' and things like that. Just trying to get my hands on as much information as I could. That's one thing I was really envious about with the Violet Hour; they had this culture that was built in to opening that bar. They knew when they opened that bar, that that would be a cocktail bar."
Toby Maloney, an experienced bartender who has helped train the Violet Hour's staff, encouraged the bartenders to push one another on new drink recipes. "Not knowing [initially] that we were going to be a cocktail-focused bar, we were just trying to tread water for a while," McGee goes on. "The minute you thought you had it figured out it would get busier. We didn't have that jumpstart. I'm not complaining about it, but it's just one of those things that you wish you had. It's like you open up this little space, and you're like, 'Oh, yeah, I'm going to make 25 drinks a night and that's going to be fun.' And the next thing you know, you're two months in and you're doing 200 cocktails on a busy night. You're like, 'Wait a minute, we don't even have an ice machine that makes that much ice to begin with!'"
Along with a nightly packed house came media attention, which ultimately led to McGee's wife joining the team. "All the press we were getting was just people calling us," he recalls. "It was kind of strange. The phone would ring some day at the bar, and it would be a magazine or something like that, wanting to know more information about us. It finally got to a point where all of our inboxes were overfilled with requests and things like that. And that's where Shelby came in to help us along with that because we're not the best at, uh, getting back to people on email. Our hours don't really help us with that." Allison would be instrumental in launching the Whistler's Book Club and Cocktails 101, the Sunday-afternoon intro to bartending class Paul taught last year.
"Something I'm proud about at the Whistler is having a really good relationship with the local chefs," McGee says. "It's been really cool to see Michael Carlson, Stephanie Izard, Graham Elliot [visit]. Dave Beran from Next has been coming in lately. There was one night when it was Dave Beran and the Next crew, and then it was David Posey and the Blackbird crew, and Heather Terhune, all on the same night. It was a Monday night, and I was like, wow, there were 15 chefs in that room. It was pretty amazing. I just looked around and started laughing. It was crazy to have that much talent in one room. It's a huge compliment to us when we see that many chefs, that we must be doing something right." But honors for McGee's favorite visit by a Chicago chef go to Carlson, who once bounded through the Whistler's front door on a Saturday night, "probably around 8 o'clock at night—which should be during his service at Schwa—and just yelling, 'Tickle fight!'"
Over the years, McGee has also forged a friendship with Ron Kaplan of LTH Forum. "Ronnie's a big food lover, McGee says. "He would come in a let me do what I wanted to do. He'd give me maybe a couple of guidelines, but he's never ordered off the menu. He's just a great guy and a great friend to have... I don't know if he's ever really chronicled [the cocktail I've made him] anywhere, but I know he puts information in his phone sometimes. I've rarely made the same drink twice for him. I'm probably going to have to end up tapping his phone for resources for some of the cocktails I'm sure I've forgotten."
But of all the foodies who've walked through the doors at the Whistler, meeting comedian and "Parks and Recreation" star Aziz Ansari was the biggest thrill. "He's been in a few times," McGee says. "'I'm a huge fan of 'Parks and Rec.' He's definitely a really big food guy. He's been to Tokyo with David Chang, and he knows a lot about food. We've talked about cocktails and hip-hop and other bars. He's a great dude."
The premise of McGee's monthly Book Club was to present, for one night only, a special cocktail menu adapted from the recipes found in a classic cocktail guide. There was a Punch! night, many tiki nights and McGee's favorite, Rogue Cocktails night. "It didn't get a lot press for this, but it was something I was really happy about being able to do, which was to make other bartenders' drinks from Chicago," he says. "We had Stephen Cole and Brad Bolt [of Bar Deville] and Kyle Davidson, Mike Ryan [of Sable Kitchen & Bar] and Ira Koplawitz—they all had a drink on the menu. To be able to make their drinks, especially for them, was really, really cool. And to have all that talent in the same room at one time was great." He adds, "It's kind of crazy doing a separate menu for just one night. It really made me a better bartender by doing that."
The "House without a Key" night, at which McGee served his own original tiki drinks, was another standout. "Doing the other tiki nights that led up to that gave me the confidence to be able to do the original drinks," he says. "I really loved the way it turned out, and it was a lot of fun for us. Shelby did the book, which had some of her illustrations, which were [laughs] sometimes flattering of me, but not always. It was a lot of fun. We ended up giving five recipes of the original drinks that you could make at home."
Once those slow, early days at the Whistler were a thing of the past, McGee felt so busy behind the bar most nights that he was missing out on an aspect of the job he cherished. "Part of the reason why I love bartending so much is that I love the interaction with the guests," he says. "That's what I really liked about the cocktail class. Cocktails 101 really gave me that outlet that I needed." Beginning in January of 2011, McGee taught small groups of students the basics of bartending on Sunday afternoons, while the Whistler was closed, giving them the chance to mix drinks behind the bar. "I really like the fact that I was able to take time with people, and I love to talk [laughs]—possibly ad nauseum about certain subjects. I don't really get that at the Whistler too much. As we kept going, it kept getting busier and busier and busier. I wasn't really able to get much of a dialogue [with patrons] that I really enjoy. So that's where Cocktails 101 was really my outlet... I'm happy that I had that."
In the Company of Friends
McGee says that many of his fondest memories from his time at the Whistler were made alongside the other members of the bar staff. "I worked a lot with Eric Henry, who is still going to be there and is going to be stepping into a lot of my bartending shifts there," he says. "When we get there, we would, of course, be cutting fruit and juicing and cutting ice. There'd be nobody there, just the two of us. We had a chance to blast our latest mix tape. It was a way to zone out and get ready for the shift at the same time. I'm going to miss that, for sure."
On Friday nights after the bar closed, the staff would head to Arturo's for tacos. "We would get crushed, and we'd get out of there kind of late, and we would make it over to Arturo's for avocado tacos, Diet Cokes and French fries, and kind of decompress from the night—talk about work, talk about things outside of work," McGee recalls. "We really don't have a staff meal at work, you just have about 10 or 15 minutes to shove some food in your face, and then it's right upstairs, into the trenches. You need that downtime to decompress, and we would go to Arturo's every now and then, sit around and talk, and be there until the sun came up."
Paul caps off our conversation with this tale: "We had a bartender, Danny Shapiro. He's actually opening up a bar where Streetside is now. He really got a case of the giggles one night. He started a tab for this guy. He turns to me and says, 'You're not going to believe what this guy's name is.' He was just uncontrollably laughing. He couldn't even spit it out. I look at the guy's credit card, and it was Richard Doody. D-O-O-D-Y. He was just giggling...this guy's name is Dick Doody. Even to this day, if you say Dick Doody to him, he's going to giggle like a little girl for like 30 minutes.
"I'm really proud of putting this tiny little bar in this up-and-coming neighborhood on the national map," McGee goes on. "We were one of the top 25 cocktail bars in America in GQ magazine; got a little shout-out in the Food & Wine cocktails book, and in their magazine for the cocktail class; Star Chefs bartender of the year, last year for Chicago. It's pretty crazy that this little place that was supposed to an art space slash live-music venue got such national attention for its cocktails. I'm really proud of it.