Words by Ian Cameron
Originally from: Rhode Island
At: New York
Winner of two James Beard Awards for Wine & Spirits Professional and Food & Beverage, Master Mixologist Dale DeGroff is the author of The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail. His enormous influence in the bar world has spanned three decades. DeGroff aka "King Cocktail" developed his techniques and talent tending bar at great establishments, most notably New York's famous Rainbow Room, where in the '80s, he pioneered a gourmet approach to recreating the great classic cocktails. DeGroff has since been credited with reinventing the bartending profession, setting off a cocktail revival that continues to flourish.
DeGroff is also a partner in the award-winning bar training program, Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) and is the Founding President of the Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC) located at the Southern Food & Beverage Institute in New Orleans
King Cocktail reminds us that cocktail culture barely registers in the eyes of most people - but it will happen, he promises!
Dale DeGroff is surprisingly hard to interview. Drink in hand, he's holding court in the reception of the hotel we're meeting in. Not sure if it's the cocktail or the audience, but the consummate raconteur is in full flow, and when we've wrestled him away and start asking questions, he reels off on long tangential anecdotes in response to each one. Just as we're wondering where the hell it's all going, he'll suddenly swoop back on topic, physically lean in, and deliver the punchline, often with a huge laugh. Sometimes he even slaps himself on the forehead to really make a point.
It's easy to lose track of what information you actually wanted to get out of him, and whether he's actually answered your question, so at one point we ask him to be more succinct. He point-blank refuses. "I am answering, in my way," he says. As for taking his picture, he's hardly the most pliable of subjects.
If this approach is frustrating for a journalist, it's fantastically entertaining to be the recipient of one of Dale's one-man shows. And anyway, the immodestly titled and fantastically media savvy King Cocktail has surely earned the right to set his own agenda.
It's Dale who is almost single-handedly credited with introducing bars to the idea of fresh juices, it's Dale who taught many of the other most influential bartenders of the new golden age of cocktails we are living in, those who are famous themselves to the extent that we know them by their first names only, like Sasha, Audrey and Dushan. It's Dale who has personified the increasing professionalization of the bar trade on American network TV and he who has arguably set the tone for cocktail writing in the mainstream press. He's presided over bars with stratospheric reputations, popularised the Cosmopolitan, and is deified as a 'guru' on Diageo's World Class bartender competition. If anyone thinks that Prohibition-style bars, or rediscovering forgotten classics from the 19th century, are a modern phenomenon, fugheddaboudit, Dale was doing both these things decades ago.
Hey, he practically invented the bar.
He's arguably the most famous living bartender in the world, and we are trying to talk to him about fame (not that he'll let us). But through the anecdotes and tangents, the message seems to be that even if he's accomplished so much, even if he is the most famous bartender in the world, he's also well aware that he - and the industry - have made only baby steps in the bigger scheme of things. In fact, the bartending revolution has barely begun, he suggests, and the bubble of modern mixology is a mere pin-prick away from being popped.
"Sure, I've been on the Martha Stewart Show, and the Today Show, and in the New York Times - they were each really important moments in my career - but no-one's ever come up to me on the street and asked for my autograph if they weren't already in the industry.
"Even today bartenders still tend to only get two-and-a-half minute slots on TV, we never get shows that run for years. The drinks revolution hasn't happened the way it did with chefs. Chefs do things that people love. They're asked to work at charity events, to cook for kids. The media is a beautiful place if you're a chef. Chefs never have to face Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Network TV is not friendly to alcoholic beverages - hard spirits very rarely and not at all when a Republican is in office."
He is highlighting the fact the contemporary craft cocktail movement is almost pathetically focused not just on a few urban areas in the world, but a few particular areas within those cities and probably - truly - just a handful of bars within each clutch.
"Think about it: 90 per cent of bartenders still have soda guns in their bars. The things I'm normally talking about affect such a small part of the market. Since 2000, I've been telling young bartenders it will be different. It hasn't taken hold but it will happen, and in a dramatic fashion. Even Marriot just decided to go fresh. It's going to be a big deal."
But if wider acceptance, knowledge and appreciation of cocktail culture at all emulates the way the culinary world has developed, we are potentially decades away from a true cocktail revolution, he continues. "American cocktails are the first culinary American art form. They have been from the beginning - cocktail culture is such a huge and integral part of American cultural history it should exactly be represented the same as chefs are today. At the Museum of the American Cocktail we are working hard to define cocktail service as a culinary thing. But don't forget that though the culinary revolution might have started in 1959, it didn't kick in until the '80s."
Dale's personal bar journey began when he arrived in New York in '69, intent on becoming an actor. Aged 21, he began drinking and dining at some of the city's best nightspots, courtesy of family connections, and that brought him into contact with the legendary restaurateur Joseph Baum. And if anyone should be credited with kick-starting the drinks revolution, says Dale, it's not him, but Joe.
Joe opened some of the mid-century's most successful restaurants. The Four Seasons, The Tavern on the Green and later the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World were under his remit amid a portfolio of more than 130 venues. Dale would get a job at one of Joe's venues, Charley O's in the Rockefeller Center, in 1973 as a waiter (later "lying through my teeth" when he told them he could tend bar), and then of course came his tenure at the Rainbow Room.
"In 1969 Joe's restaurants were serving Pisco Sours, drinks with mezcal, Margaritas, Sangria with vodka or cognac. These are just the sort of drinks that are becoming popular again today so you could say he was looking forward 40 years. When I put a Pisco Sour on the menu in 1992 at the Rainbow Room I saw Joe give a tiny smile."
After a six-year spell in Los Angeles, where Dale tended bar at the Hotel Bel-Air (his training involved methodically cleaning the bar's precious bottles - "Of course, I would smell them and sip them too, I tasted every fucking thing there. They knew that"), Dale was back in New York and working for Joe Baum again. That moment, he says, was when he realised he was worth his salt: "Are you fucking kidding me? Working for the most important restaurateur in the world? That was astonishing to me - he wouldn't have kept me a week if I wasn't good enough."
Joe had hired him to create a new menu for Aurora, at 48th and Madison, which could come to be seen as a test-bed for the Rainbow Room. If Joe had been ahead of his time in the 60s, now he put in the groundwork for a drinks revolution. "He truly changed the way people eat and drink. He really started us on the road to cuisine we have today and in 1984 he hired me to make a classic cocktail bar à la the late 19th century golden age. He said if he saw a soda gun, he'd rip it out. It was an opportunity to work out the detail, bringing back to life a kind of bartending that hadn't existed before Prohibition. All fresh, old classics, reviving forgotten drinks, and he wanted me to tell the stories behind the drinks."
Working for Joe was not easy and compliments didn't exactly flow. Dale remembers being hauled into his office one morning and confronted over an interview he had given to a magazine. "It was at the Rainbow Room in December 1987 and we had just reopened. Joe called me down alone and I knew that was not a good sign. He had a foul look and tossed a fancy food magazine on the desk. I turned to the yellow tab and smiled - I didn't even know I had been interviewed! Joe takes the magazine and underlines a section. "What we are trying...." it reads. "'Trying' is for students," he says. "We don't try. We do!""
Dale tells a story that suggests the origins of the flamed orange peel in his Cosmopolitan. "Having Joe on your resume meant you could work anywhere. He wanted the best and wanted you to do the work. One time, he said to me: "There's something wrong with the Bloody Bullshots, fix it." It took me six months to figure it out. In the end it was the simplest thing - I was in a Chinese restaurant and ate beef with orange. The next day I put orange peel over the top of the Bullshot and flamed it in. And he went "OK", so I knew I had done good."
Rainbow Room's reopening went down a storm with the press, and even if it was Joe pulling the strings, it was Dale, now aged 39, who got the credit. "We had an Art Deco restoration, a revolving stage, fancy glassware and the 26 hardest cocktails you have ever seen. There were no other cocktail lists anywhere to speak of. I wasn't nervous though, I was no genius but it just clicked in my head and we got so much press because no one was doing what we were doing. Playboy wrote up one of the cocktails early on." He also did his homework, immersing himself in the cocktail books of old.
His fame grew when Madonna was famously seen drinking one of Dale's Cosmos at the Rainbow Room, and it's arguably this drink that has catapulted Dale from industry legend to someone the outside world takes notice of, but Dale remembers his best day ever at the venue as one quite different. "This was years later and we were losing our lease. It was the closing party of the Rainbow Room. All my life I had been a singer with piano players and I felt I needed to sing with the orchestra. I sang a set and that put a really beautiful period at the end of that stunning sentence."
Within Joe Baum's group of restaurants was Windows on the World, on the 106th and 107th floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Dale had been working there the night before the attack in 2001, and was part of the contingent that locked up for what would be the very last time. "I worked there as a trainer, in charge of the Spirits in the Sky programme, which we'd started seven years before. It really was the greatest bar on earth. It had a double-height ceiling and a mezzanine overlooking the bar.
"On the 10th of September I had hosted a tequila event there, and it had sold out, so afterwards, I said to the other guys, let's go downstairs and have a snack. We stayed, closed, I was the last man out with the manager along with the cooks and dishwashers, and I went to PJ Clarke's with my pals. The next morning I went out to a news stand on Long Island and saw the smoke, saw the tragedy playing out on TV. Normally there would have been 12 employees there in the morning, but on 11th September there was a special breakfast for 200 people and there were 73 employees up there."
Joe was also the missing link who provided the means for Dale's protégé, Audrey Saunders, owner of Pegu Club, to get experience behind the bar. "I met Audrey when she was at NYU in continuing education in the hotel division. I used her for pro-bono gigs for Joe. We ended up working Gracie Mansion where the union guys wouldn't do it but she would work for free. When I hired her for money later we had maybe one of the most creative years ever."
Dale's one biggest regret is that the key moments in his career spent working for Joe coincided with the infancy of his two sons. "The real thing I regret about my bartending is missing so much of my sons growing up. My boys were born in '82 and '84, and I went to work for Joe in '85. Those first years were all hands on deck, sometimes seven days a week. I missed so much of those joyful years. A lot of bartenders feel the same way. I would see them at brunch at the restaurant, that's all. To this day I've never spent significant amounts of time with Leo."
Just before we get too melancholy, we wrap up with a few quick-fire questions sent in by our readers.
1. Blue Drinks: Discuss. "I like the Blue Hawaii - it has sentimental value. Blue drinks get an undeserved hard rap."
2. If you could pick any combination of bar, bartender and drink from any time in history, for his last drink on earth, where/who/what? "Harry Craddock, not at the Savoy, but in New York at his original job, at the Plaza, and it would be a Stinger."
3. If you could be any classic drink, what would you be and why? "A Gin Martini, straight up, dry but not extra dry, olive and a twist. Sophisticated, sexy looking and probably the most satisfying experience in the whole of the drink world to watch a talented bartender prepare.
4. Bartenders today have achieved so much, but is there anything significant that we have lost along the way? "I'm not willing to say they've lost it yet. It's too soon, that's my answer."
5. What's the next big cocktail phenomenon going to be? "A bar where fun is more important than the next big trend."
And with that, Dale stands up abruptly: the interview is over.
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