An Ode To Dale DeGroff, King Cocktail

Apr 24, 2013 4:01 pm

A look at and appreciation of a cocktail legend

Dale DeGroff helped revive classic drinks and cocktail culture around the world.
Dale DeGroff helped revive classic drinks and cocktail culture around the world.
 

If you are a fan of cocktails and bartending you should be familiar with the name Dale DeGroff, known throughout the cocktail world as “King Cocktail.” He is one of the saviors of the crafted cocktail as we know it today and is considered a legend for what he has done globally for the culture. Dale is the author of a book called The Craft of the Cocktail, which every cocktail geek should have in his or her collection. He is also responsible for opening some of the most important cocktail bars, bars that helped kick start the rebirth of our current cocktail movement.

It is not Dale’s own achievements that are his crowning glory, but rather the influence he has had on others. He helped people realize that being a bartender is not just a passing job, and that bartending is a career to be proud of. When he opened Blackbird in New York City in 1999, he took Audrey Saunders under his wings. She would go on to open the Pegu Club, one of the country’s most celebrated and influential cocktail bars. Dale gave Sasha Petraske his first cocktail book, inspiring him to open Milk & Honey, which is probably the most mimicked cocktail bar in the world. Finally, he has taught countless bartenders the art and craft of how to mix drinks and tend bar through his classes and through the part he has played teaching for the Beverage Alcohol Resource.

Some of you may remember a dark time for cocktails, about 10-15 years ago. It was the time of 100-strong martini lists and a time when three ingredients were thrown into a shaker without consideration for measurements and softly shaken for about three seconds with weak ice before a florescent-looking liquid would be sloshed into a giant cocktail glass. The result was an '80s-throwback-looking drink that would make Tom Cruise in Cocktail proud, and usually it tasted like sugar and alcohol in a glass. During this period of bad drinks, Dale DeGroff had a very different ethos towards mixing cocktails and tending bar.

Dale was inspired by legendary restaurateur Joe Baum, who told him to get his hands on a copy of Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks and apply those drinks to a new classic cocktail bar he was opening atop Rockefeller Center in The Rainbow Room. This book was the first cocktail tome ever written and getting your hands on a copy in 1987, when there was no eBay or Internet, was no easy task.

Needless to say, eventually Dale got his copy and through this book was able to transport his bar back to a time when fresh fruits and juices were the norm, where bitters and egg whites were commonplace behind the bar, and when drinks were correctly grouped into categories such as Punches, Sours, Flips, juleps, cocktails and Fizzes — to name just a few. It is easy to take all this for granted nowadays, but back then the craft of mixing such drinks had mostly been forgotten. Dale, in large part, is responsible for reviving these drinks not just for the U.S., but also for the rest of the world.

In 2002, when I came to New York City to launch Plymouth Gin, there was one thing I knew: If you were coming to New York and wanted to know something about where to get a good drink, you called up Dale DeGroff. In an effort to impress him, I researched the latest New York hot spot for us to meet. I was running late and when I arrived at the bar, it was already closed down. There was a sticky note on the door that said, “Meet me at a real bar” along with an address. The address was the uptown beer and oyster saloon, PJ Clarke’s, and Dale was sitting at the bar with a beer. It was there that I learned my first lesson from him: “Good bars aren’t just about the drinks.” With that being said, Dale teaches people how to make great drinks; it’s what he does best and literally thousands of bartenders have learned the craft from him.

If you had heard of Dale before reading this piece, you will know exactly what I am saying. For those who had not, allow me to bring to your attention a man who the bar industry will be eternally grateful for, a humble man who often refuses to take credit for the great work he has done (which is part of his charm), but who has had one of the biggest influences on how we drink today. Dale, please take a bow for what you have done for the bar community so far.

A Dale DeGroff classic (Reprinted from The Essential Cocktail)

Chiaro Di Luna
3 x 1-inch pineapple wedges
1 sprig of rosemary, halved
1 tablespoon of orgeat syrup
4 ounces dry Prosecco

Muddle pineapple chunks and half the rosemary sprig with the orgeat syrup. Add ice. Hold a bar spoon in one hand and use the other hand to slowly pour the Prosecco, using the spoon to gently pull the other ingredients from the bottom of the glass. Strain into a chilled flute. Garnish with the remaining pineapple wedge and the other half of the rosemary sprig on the rim of the glass.

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