From a humble job washing dishes to “King Cocktail”, Dale DeGroff moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting and ended up one of the most influential and revered personalities in spirits and mixology.
Dale DeGroff is credited with ushering in the craft cocktail movement during his time at the legendary Rainbow Room in Manhattan when he worked for renowned restaurateur Joe Baum in 1980’s. He pioneered a gourmet approach to recreating the classic cocktails using fresh ingredients and played a pivotal role in restoring classic drinks to America’s bars and restaurants.
Among his many credentials, he has authored The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail and is the founding president of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.
A charming speaker and raconteur, DeGroff was in Sydney for De Kuyper The Works where he addressed members of the bartending profession and regaled them with stories of his experiences behind the bar. We caught up with Dale DeGroff after his presentation to talk craft cocktails with King Cocktail.
~ ~ ~
Corinne: One of your many attributes is that you’re credited with ushering in the craft cocktail movement. Is the word ‘craft’ getting overused these days?
Dale DeGroff: I don’t think so. It’s not an art, that would be overused. It’s a crafty thing. I think it’s just the beginning of the movement. Just because we think we’re in the middle of it, we think it’s pervasive. It’s not. In America, there are hundreds and thousands of bars where these kinds of cocktails are not available. They’re still in the dark ages in a sense. They’re not doing fresh ingredients; they haven’t discovered the classic recipes. We have a long way to go to be where the culinary side of the business is, because on the culinary side, there are so many choices. Worldwide, the whole idea of fusion, taking techniques from one discipline and mixing them with recipes from a different culture. That’s just starting now and we’ve got a long way in my opinion.
You’re also credited with popularising the Cosmopolitan. What does it take to turn a cocktail into a modern classic?
Dale DeGroff: Luck! [laughs] There has to be a high level of deliciousness which the cocktail had in the recipe that Toby [Cecchini] and I were doing.
To me, it’s a little bit overrated. Joe [Baum] would not allow me to put an original cocktail on the menu. We were doing something that hadn’t been done before Prohibition in a lot of cases, and that is bringing back actual recipes and making drinks the way they have been made originally, that was enough in Joe’s eyes to bring that back to the marketplace.
If you’re working in a fine dining restaurant, the chef is not going to let you do the menu. He will. A lot of young bartenders don’t have the chops yet. I think you should make drinks every day that are new and unusual but don’t plan on getting them on a menu right away. You can’t skip that step of learning the ingredients. In my time, flavour and ingredients were the last thing on anybody’s mind. We didn’t know how to taste. Now we’re realising we need as much training as the culinary side in that aspect then you can start creating drinks.
The question that precedes your question is, are you ready to even think about making a modern classic? Have you got the chops? Do you understand the ingredients? There’s 500 bottles in your bar. What goes with what and why? Then tell me you want to create a modern classic.
If you look at all the greats, they’re relatively straight forward and simple, under 5 ingredients. Don’t put 12 ingredients in there, housemade this and that, you end up with mud. Finding four ingredients and putting them together in a balanced way ain’t that easy. That’s to me an earmark of a classic. There’s a simplicity but simple never means easy.
What are 3 things that bartenders get wrong these days?
Dale DeGroff: Overproducing drinks, what we talked about just now.
There are specific things, like the whole punch movement. Where did they get the idea that vinegar was supposed to be the original true shrub? It was the last resort. A lot of guys are doing vinegar shrubs out there and you have to be very good at it not to have something that taste like vinegar. If you can afford the kind of vinegar that doesn’t taste like vinegar, its $100 an ounce. You’re not going to put that in the drink or you’ll have to charge 100 bucks for the drink.
Another thing is get it right from the beginning. If you get a question you don’t know the answer to, you simply say to the guest, “You know, I’ve wondered the same thing. I’m going to google it tonight and next time I see you, I’ll have the whole story.” That should give you enough impetus to know what stories are behind the drinks. Do your homework, know the stuff and answer the question. It’s really embarrassing when the guest knows more than you.
As an authority in the spirit and cocktail world, who do you think is leading the cocktail scene at the moment?
Dale DeGroff: New York. London was really active for a while, they seem to have become more subdued. When it comes to exotic or culinary ingredients, London was leading the way back in the late 90’s. They were the first to take a strawberry and muddle it, that was pretty revolutionary. There’s a lot going on in New York right now. Death & Co, Audrey Sunders of Pegu Club, a lot of mentors that are turning out some great bartenders that go on to open bars.
In recent times, we’ve seen the rise of home bartending and more people making cocktails at home. What advice would you give the home bartender?
Dale DeGroff: Stock your bar with stuff that your friends like to drink [laughs]. You don’t need a huge bar but make sure you have stuff that your most active of friends that socialise with you all the time. Get ingredients and play but follow recipes. Don’t be afraid to have fun. Have fun and make your cocktail parties interactive so everybody gets to bring ingredients for one’s drinks and make it for everybody.
Finally, Dale you’re a respected veteran in the industry. You’ve travelled the world and done many interviews. What is the one question that no one has asked you that you’ve wanted to be asked?
Dale DeGroff: Ah… [long pause]. Well, I guess it’s… ask me why I became a bartender. That’s a good question and I don’t get it very often.
I moved to New York City and bars in NYC are like the Redwoods in California. They are a natural resource. It takes you 30 seconds to realise that people spend their lives in New York bars. These days Manhattan has become a luxury burrow and a lot of the younger types are moving out to Brooklyn. Early on, you needed a place to go because your apartment was so tiny. There was a bar in every corner in all the neighbourhoods. It wasn’t easy. These bars tend to be insular. You’re an outsider and you have to work at it.
My advice was always “shut up and tip big”. Just listen to conversations to see what you’re in for. Don’t start talking too soon. Give the bartender a big tip and you’d be surprised how it opens doors for you.
I walked into this bar, every eye was on me. They looked at me like a side dish they didn’t order. I sat at the bar. The old guy behind the bar, Al was really nice to me. I realised I hadn’t tipped the guy well. I only had $2.50 in my pocket and drinking 50 cent beers. Two beers in with 50 cents left and a dollar tip, some old guy said, “Can you play guitar? Can you sing anything?” Meanwhile the owner of the bar was shaking his head. Al was always fighting with him so he said, “Play something”. So I played this song, and then he said, “Give him a beer, Al!” I played the same song twice, two more beers. That was a lesson.
There’s so many stories I like to tell these young bartenders because there’s a reason to all these stories. New York is a difficult place. You don’t go looking for a good time in New York because you have to bring some of it with you.
Any closing comments?
Dale DeGroff: No…[laughs] I could tell stories all night long!
You can view the photo gallery of Dale DeGroff’s visit here.
Photo by Cocktails & Bars – © Copyright: All rights reserved.