The Art of Bartending: Dale DeGroff
Our columnist sat down with the father of the rebirth of the cocktail for a chat over oysters and pints.
“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry…”
When a man quotes poet Dylan Thomas for an interview sound check, you know you’re not dealing with just any old guy. And, yes, Dale DeGroff is an old guy. But he’s a very special old guy. He’s the best bartender I know. And he’s a good friend of mine.
We met recently at Grand Central Terminal’s historic Oyster Bar. Naturally, we ordered a dozen oysters and a couple of pints of Guinness, and sat back for a good chinwag. I’ve known the man for almost thirty years. I’ve traveled with him, shared an apartment with him for a few nights, and, god knows, I’ve stayed up with him till the wee hours turned muckle, shooting the shit, spinning yarns, and living the good life, but I still haven’t a clue what makes him tick. I just know that he’s the best.
Case in point: Bemelmans Bar inside New York’s Carlyle Hotel, circa 2002. Audrey Saunders, before she opened her award-winning Pegu Club, was the new beverage director and Dale was consulting on the hotel’s new cocktail program. I was there for an opening night bash for big-wigs. The joint was hoppin’. Dale was behind the stick alongside an old dude who moved slower than mud. I stood back and watched. How you gonna handle this one, Dale? I’m thinking. It was the first time I had ever seen him behind a bar other than the one at the Rainbow Room where he rose to fame and helped revive the art of bartending, which had nearly died off. But in his opulent sky-high perch in the middle of New York’s landmark Rockefeller Center he had a team of talented bartenders pumping out drinks to the thirsty masses, while Dale held forth with style and grace.
But at Bemelmans that night, I watched as Dale looked into the eyes of each guest, took his or her order, put his head down, made the drink at lightning speed, looked back into the guest’s eyes, “The Bemelmans Cocktail,” he presented. His eyes moved to the next in line. Repeat. Pure poetry in motion. That was perhaps the first time but not the last time that he proved I should never ever bet against him—no matter the odds.
“No matter how good you’ve heard Dale DeGroff is,” I tell every bartender who attends my bartender workshops, “he’s better than that.” It’s just a fact.
Dale’s a tad older than I, and I delight in teasing him about this, but the fact is that he and I are from the same generation of bartenders who learned how to mix and muddle back in the 1970s when Mississippi Mudslides and Alabama Slammers were the craze. We have witnessed a lot of changes in the craft, most of them coming from young twenty-first-century bartenders. What’s Dale’s take on these creative upstarts?
“What’s amazing is how these bartenders have gone into the kitchen, gone into the science lab, gone to the grocery store and beyond,” he eagerly tells me. He likens this globe-trotting and wave of innovations to the early days of the cocktail “when people came over from Europe to America. They brought their traditions with them and eventually we put them all together in a glass, but now it’s like we’ve done that, but on a worldwide scale.”
I reminded Dale at this point that he was the first bartender I’d ever heard of who raided the kitchen at the Rainbow Room searching for ingredients to play with.
“That’s right,” said Dale, “I did go into the kitchen stealing fruit purees from the chef. He was seriously pissed off when he found out. ‘What are you doing?’ he said, ‘I got 360 people expecting a chilled fruit soup tonight. I need every bit of that puree.’”
So what does King Cocktail, as he is now known, think of modern cocktail methodology? He ain’t easily sold I can tell you. Dry shakes (shaking ingredients without ice) are too time consuming for too little reward, he told me, and he really railed on the massive orange and lemon twists that many bartenders favor today.
“They get six twists out of an orange!” he declares. “I cut coin-sized orange twists that have plenty of essential oils, and I get 14 or 15 twists out of a decent piece of fruit.” And it’s not just a question of efficiency. “If you release all of the oils out of one of those gigantic twists the drink gets far too bitter.”
I confess to never having thought about the downside of dry-shaking or huge twists before, and this is key. Dale made me think. It’s a sign of a great teacher—great teachers don’t just hand you facts on a plate. They throw you breadcrumbs that make you think. Dale’s a great teacher.
But that doesn’t mean that this old dog isn’t learning new tricks. What surprised me was his embrace of elements of today’s molecular mixology movement. When he described using pioneering bartender Dave Arnold’s technique of combining malic and citric acids to create a “juice” that doesn’t alter the color of a drink, he looked like 12-year-old kid who just got his first bicycle for Christmas. He also has much admiration for the current generation of bartenders. Charles Joly and Joaquín Simó were the first names that gushed from Dale’s lips when I asked him for some of his favorite bartenders working today. He couldn’t have chosen better as far as I’m concerned.
If you really want to see Dale DeGroff’s eyes sparkle, though, don’t ask him about cocktails, never mention his rise to stardom, ignore all of the accolades from his peers, don’t think about how many awards he’s received, or how many times his mug has been on TV. To get Dale’s eyes to really sparkle, just ask him about his wife and sons. Then see if you can get him to shut up for the next half-hour.
Dale’s a family man. That’s who Dale DeGroff is. And I’m so damned proud to call him a friend.
By Dale DeGroff
- 1 oz Coffee/fennel mixture*
- 1 oz Carpano Formula Antica
- 1 oz Beefeater Gin or Hendrick’s Gin
- Glass: Old-Fashioned
- Garnish: Orange slice
- Add all the ingredients to an Old-Fashioned glass and fill with ice.
- Stir and garnish with an orange slice.
*Drip brew 8 ounces of Lavazza Kilimanjaro Single Source Coffee grounds with 2 teaspoons of ground fennel seeds. Chill.
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