Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got an underground bar in the Windy City that’s changing peoples’ perceptions of tiki.
NAME: Three Dots and A Dash
LOCATION: River North, Chicago
ON THE JUKEBOX: Martin Denny, Alton Ellis & The Flames, Phyllis Dillon
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Three Dots and A Dash (recipe by Don the Beachcomber, 1940s): Aged rhum agricole (cane juice rum), Guyanese rum, honey, falernum (sweet tiki syrup), lime, allspice and Angostura bitters
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): An aged-rum Daiquiri (not on the menu)
WHY WE LOVE IT: When winters get harsh in Chicago, bar patrons become scarce, opting to stay home instead of brave the weather. But the opposite is true when it comes to Three Dots and A Dash tiki bar. “In January and February when other people are slowing down, we’re picking up,” beverage director Diane Corcoran says. “Because people want to get out of the snow and pretend they’re not here right now. I’m sure tiki bars in Hawaii are a lot of fun, but we’re popular because we’re in the middle of a city where it’s cold and rainy a lot.”
Three Dots and A Dash gets its names from the Morse code sequence for the letter “V,” as in victory. American tiki legend Don Beachcomber—a.k.a. Donn Beach—created a cocktail of the same name 70 years ago to celebrate the end of World War II and the return of the troops. Three Dots and A Dash’s namesake drink is on the menu, plus other 10-ingredient tiki classics and modern riffs on the theme like the Port of Call cocktail: aged rum, rye whiskey, cacao and Fernet-Branca.
Inside the subterranean bar in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, bartenders don Hawaiian-print shirts and dresses and shake-up vintage concoctions that are often on fire or spewing dry-ice fog. But don’t be fooled by the theatrics; these aren’t your grandpa’s tiki drinks. “When people first come in, they have a very set idea about what these cocktails are going to taste like,” Corcoran says. “But then they might not know what some stuff on the menu is, so they stick to ordering things they’ve heard of before like a Mai Tai or Painkiller.“
Once guests get warmed up, they get more adventuruous and try out some of Three Dots and A Dash’s more unusual offerings. For example, here, bartenders split base spirits (use more than one spirit in a single drink) and include unexpected ones like gin, which they say pairs well with tropical fruits. “A lot of the older tiki bars were very much rum-based, but tiki bars nowadays are really starting to experiment to get different flavor profiles,” Corcoran says. Her bar team makes its own coconut liqueur, orgeat and subtle syrups like cinnamon, maple and pomegranate. "Not everything is syrupy sweet anymore. We can really recreate these cocktails well and change peoples’ perceptions.”
If you can’t make it to Chicago in the winter, don’t fret: Corcoran only tweaks the menu twice a year. "I don’t really think about it seasonally,” she says. “I try to keep it fresh and summery year-round. People are there for the ambiance. We give them an escape.”
Like Three Dots and A Dash’s tiki mugs? Buy them at the bar’s online store.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. She embodies that tiki lifestyle. Find her on Twitter: @amshep