Imagine a wretched world where Sidecars and whiskey sours tasted like they’d been shaken with lemon Pine-Sol and strained through worn-out socks. It was called the ’80s (so we hear).
That is, until Dale DeGroff helped pull us out of an epoch of insipid drinks and spawned the cocktail revival that continues to flourish.
In the big-hair decade, DeGroff was hired by prominent New York restaurateur Joseph Baum to create a bar program for a small restaurant devoid of abominable from-the-gun sour mixes and bringing back forgotten classics. Two years later, DeGroff took his program to the big stage — Baum’s famous Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center.
Considered a bartending trailblazer, DeGroff has since written several authoritative cocktail books, nabbed a James Beard award and launched his own bitters line. Southern Wine & Spirits brought the man known as King Cocktail to Minneapolis this week to lead a mostly industry tasting event. We caught up with him after the Manhattan-fueled fete to talk ballet, bartending and the future of the cocktail movement.
Q: At what point did you sense that you were doing something at the Rainbow Room that would change the game?
A: I knew before then, because I had worked for two years at that small fine-dining restaurant called Aurora for Joe. We were able to put this program in place in a small way, the three bartenders and me.
Q: Did you see other places catching on?
A: In that era, the ’80s, there weren’t cocktail menus. What we were doing hadn’t been done since right after Prohibition because it was hard to find any skilled labor after Prohibition. By the ’70s, when everybody had sour mix coming out of a gun, cocktails tasted so bad that nobody bothered.
Q: Was it ever a challenge to get guests to come back to these drinks?
A: I wish it had been a challenge. From the second we opened, I had to downsize the menu. I thought there’d be a breaking-in period. It was six deep from the second we opened, and it never stopped. It was unbelievable. We had 125 seats in the lounge, and we turned it over three or four times a night.
I saw menus starting to pop up in little places down in the Village first — Between the Sheets. You know, Between the Sheets was a very obscure cocktail at the time. The only place you could get it was at the Rainbow Room. I knew where they got it. I pulled it out of a book that had been out of print since the ’50s. Very, very difficult to find. I could see the thing evolving and developing.
Q: Over the years, have there been cocktail trends that you’ve rolled your eyes at?
A: You know what, I learned my lesson with the Blood and Sand cocktail. When I saw Scotch, orange juice, sweet vermouth and Cherry Heering, I thought, “Get out of here!” until I shook one up finally, because I saw it in so many classic books. Sure enough, that was the end of my prejudging anything before I tasted it. As time went on and the cocktail became more culinary, I started saying “OK, let’s see how it tastes.” And, in fact, we’ve moved into another era.
Q: The cocktail movement has grown exponentially, but what do you think the future holds? What’s on the horizon?
A: [Molecular gastronomy chef] Ferran Adrià — that times 10. They’re doing it beverage side now. Go see Charles Joly at the Aviary, he’s the future. That’s part of the future. But I don’t say that meaning that the classic cocktails are going to go away ever. They withstood 150 years of trial and error. Who knows which of our modern classics will have that kind of long life?
Q: Do you have a go-to cocktail?
A: The gin martini, straight up with an olive and a twist.
Q: What is it about that drink?
A: I tell you, it wasn’t always. I got drunk on gin in college. I was in a rock ’n’ roll band and the leader of this band, I was hero-worshiping this guy. He drank warm gin out of the flask. So, I started drinking warm gin out of the flask, I got so sick. I didn’t want to see gin ever again in my life. But when I became a bartender I said, “Wait a minute, this is not going to work. I’m going to have to revisit this gin martini thing on the level.”
Q: You were an actor before you got into bartending.
A: I’m so glad I was.
Q: Did some of those skills translate?
A: I tell bartenders now to take dance lessons, vocal classes. I studied voice in Carnegie Hall. I studied dance for years, jazz and ballet. It gives you such physical confidence and such vocal prowess that you never ever have that moment when you feel uncomfortable physically because you’re in command of your body. And you’re on a stage back there, man.
Michael Rietmulder writes about beer, cocktails and nightlife.