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Mutineer Interview with Dale DeGroff

Dale DeGroff 1

Dale DeGroff at SF watering hole Elixir.

It is by no coincidence that Dale DeGroff has earned the street-title “King Cocktail”. His work at the legendary Rainbow Room in New York fueled a cocktail revolution in the United States in the 1980s that is still roaring today, and his books “The Essential Cocktail” and “The Craft of the Cocktail” have become standard-issue textbooks for aspiring mixologists and bartenders around the world. DeGroff has won an ambitious list of awards, including the prestigious 2009 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional, and he is a partner of the “Beverage Alcohol Resource”, which offers spirits and mixology training worldwide. In an issue of Mutineer Magazine dedicated to the celebration of spirits and mixology culture, we are proud to bring you this conversation with King Cocktail himself.

I went to New York in 1969, and had been many times before. In that era, the drinking age was only 18, and I was 18 in 1966. I started going to New York and hanging out in the New York City Bar and Grill, which I was just totally enamored with because the bars in New York are like the redwoods in California, they’re a natural resource. There are so many different kinds of bars, everything from your neighborhood bar to the coolest, high-end restaurant bars, to these days and cutting-edge and geeky cocktail bars to clubby joints to after-hours joints where they only serve stuff in cans because they have to shut down shop and open up somewhere else two days later…there are all kinds of crazy and wonderful bars in New York.

I didn’t finish college, I walked away from a Dean’s List and a three and a half year education to become an actor in New York. I was studying at the University of Rhode Island, and quickly found myself drawn to these saloons and jazz clubs, and I caught the end of an era. In 1969, a little bit of swing street was still left, Jimmy Ryan’s club was still open along with Eddie Condon’s The Half Note, and I was a jazz fan from high school, so I hung around those places even though I had no money. We knew a couple of the musicians and could insinuate ourselves. For me, from day one, the bars are where you wanted to be. That was where life was.

“For me, from day one, the bars are where you wanted to be. That was where life was.”

No. You’re walking around, and you’re looking at these massive buildings with thousands and thousands of windows with one thought in your mind: “What the hell is going on behind all these windows?” You’re just looking at it saying, “God, I gotta figure this out.” I just wanted to get into every one of them and figure it out and see what was happening. So we went to bar after bar after bar, to joint after joint, restaurants, whatever we could afford, and we were lucky because this friend of mine had a brother that owned an advertising agency in New York City, Ron Holland of Lois Holland Callaway, a very small but very creative agency which went a long way into getting me into the business because at that time they had the most prestigious restaurant client in the city called Restaurant Associates, actually in the world, because those early days of Restaurant Associates and one individual in particular who was the first President, Joseph Baum, is credited as being one of the visionaries who took us out of the fifties: steaks and chops, iceberg lettuce, unchanging menus, you know…

I later ended up working for this guy, Joseph Baum, who ran and opened all those places. He hired me solely because he knew I had been around in those places, because Ron [last name] took us, and that was another thing. I was dead broke, but here I am dining in the Four Seasons, a restaurant that had a meal ticket for a single dinner larger than my monthly rent, and here I am dining in this place. It was just incredible.

Flash forward, 1978. I’m working one of the most beautiful hotels in the world just by sheer force of my ability to lie. I had worked for three or four years as a bartender and a waiter and a dishwasher in New York at a very good place called Charlie O’s, and that name got me in the door at the Hotel Bel-Air. They had just fired a guy, and the head bartender Jim Kitchens was behind the bar working the day shift and he’s pissed. He hates to work the day shift, so he just wants a warm body behind that bar as soon as he can possibly get them, so when I mentioned Charlie O’s he recognized it, and Joe Baum, he recognized that name. He makes me pour a shot and says, “Come back tomorrow and we’ll try you out for a week and see how it works out.” So I came back and I stayed there.

“I was just totally out of my league. If I wanted to keep the job, I had to get my ass in gear.”

I realized very quickly that I didn’t recognize a lot of the products behind the bar. I didn’t know what Port was; I was just totally out of my league. If I wanted to keep the job, I had to get my ass in gear. I was in the bar business in a very cursory way. I was in the bar business because it was fun and I loved bars. I didn’t know anything about drinks; nobody knew anything about drinks in those days. The “that’s-how-we-make-it-here syndrome” days when bartenders could give a crap about recipes or fresh, all of the sodas and juices came out of a gun. There were certain things that would be good such as the Manhattan or Martini, ‘cause how can you screw that up? There’s no juice in it. There’s nothing artificial in it. It is what it is. So that was the environment I came into as a bartender, and then I worked at the Hotel Bel-Air and learned about the fine spirits at least, and I had some embarrassing moments.

Then when I got back to New York in 1985, Joe was opening this fine dining restaurant called Aurora, and I was going to be plugging for the Head Bartender there. Joe didn’t know what kind of bartender I was. He knew I’d worked at the Hotel Bel-Air. He came to me and said, “What I want you to do is tell the stories Dale. And here’s what else I want; I want a classic 19th century bar, and if you don’t know how to do it, find a book called, How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas. It’ll teach you how to do it. I don’t want anything artificial. I don’t want any guns, nothing like that. Splits of soda, fresh everything.”

I “came up” with sour mix and guns, and I said, “Yup. Great, we’ll do that. But you know Joe, it might not be a bad idea to have a few bottles of sour mix in case we get really really busy.” Because I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to make all of these drinks. And Joe says, “Look. For 150 years, bartenders made these drinks without any of this crap, in the busiest places. And if you can’t figure out how to do it, then I’m going to find somebody that can.” And I said, “Oh no, I got it! I got it! Forget it, we won’t have any backup, I’ll just figure it out. Don’t worry.” That was what I walked into. I started to study. I first went to a bookstore asking them if they had Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks. [Joe] didn’t tell me it was published in1862! This was like 1985, I didn’t have a clue, but I finally found a 1929 edition that a guy lent me. Thank God it was a small, fine dining restaurant where Champagne and fine wine were the premier beverages. Over the period of two years at Aurora, I had the absolute luxury of figuring it all out in a place where there was not a lot of demand.

It was radical in the sense that no bartender anywhere in America that I knew of, and certainly not in New York, was doing anything different than putting an ounce and a half of whiskey, pushing a button for the sour mix to come out, shaking it, and that was the drink. Nobody knew anything different. Nobody even squeezed a lemon. The only thing you ever did with a lemon was make those stupid peels. Nobody thought about fresh lemon and lime juice.

At the end of two years at this fine dining restaurant Aurora, Joe is busily at work, and I’m watching this every day. He’s bringing in all of these famous designers. He’s bringing in people like Milton Glazer, and all of these famous industrial and graphic designers. This is all happening, and I’m watching all of this go down like, “Damn man! I want to work at this place. This is where I want to be. This is going to be spectacular.”

So I went to Joe, and I said, “Here’s what I want to do Joe. This is working out pretty good now. We’ve got some really great drinks here, and we have the fresh juices and the whole thing, and I want to take this over there. Why don’t we get a menu that has drinks on it from some of the old supper clubs. Why don’t we grab a drink from each of these places and put it on the menu with some other classics.” “Ya ya, I’ve done it before but I like it. Show me a menu.” So I showed him a menu, and now I’m faced with taking that small, tiny program with four bartenders and extrapolating out into 28 bartenders and three permanent bars and the multitude of satellite bars on any given day on the two floors of the Rainbow Room. It was a massive job to try and figure out how to do it, and from opening day the bar was six deep. We had 125 seats in the lounge and we had a little service bar in the back, which ended up being busier than the front bar because all of the tables were serviced out of that bar. And I had this 28 drink menu: Ramos Gin Fizz, Sazerac, all of these old classics, and the bartenders are like, “Dale, it’s not possible. We’re turning over 700 guests in a few hours. We can’t do this.” And I start thinking, “Jesus Chris, what have I done? I messed up. It’s just not gonna work.” So I took the menu back, and this was a menu that we spent a ton of money to print. I cut it back to 16 drinks from 28. I cut out some of the Ramos Gin Fizz stuff to figure out later, and it went back on the menu eventually.

“And then the drinks became famous, and we were doing something no one else was doing.”

Then we figured out the whole system we ended up using in the back. For example, the Singapore Sling, which we did not want to take off the menu, it has Cherry Herring, Cointreau, Benedictine, and gin, and those four things are easily mixable, so we got gallon store-and-pours. The next three ingredients were pineapple juice, lime juice, and bitters. That’s what you put in at the moment of service. You put in two and a half ounces of this mixture, then you put the pineapple and the bitters and the lime juice and you shook it up, and that way we turned out drinks really fast. Everything that was non-volatile and wouldn’t spoil would go into the gallon jug, and within a year we were able to have really fast and really excellent service. And then the drinks became famous, and we were doing something no one else was doing.

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