King Cocktail hits town

on 11 October, 2012

I’ve seen the beginning and the end of a lot of eras. That says it all about ‘King Cocktail’, Dale DeGroff. The great man is in London to co-host ‘The World’s 50 Best Bars’ event which was held in London last night (Oct 10) near Trafalgar Square...

DeGroff is a walking, talking who’s who of the US bartending/cocktail fraternity. After an exhausting hour or so, I plead with him to write all this down or get it taped. He says he doesn’t write but I suggest he talks to author of many books on drinks and cocktails, David Wondrich, and cut a deal with him to get all his knowledge on record for posterity. Wondrich was a professor of English literature and through his love of bars and cocktails has written some definitive books, Imbibe! and Punch to cite but two. If anyone could pin down DeGroff, it has to be Wondrich. Frankly, the influence and importance of this man could be up there with Jerry Thomas. I am not joking.

The 64-year-old is up there with the likes of Salvatore Calabrese and Peter Dorelli. These men have the clout, the experience but they are of a ‘certain vintage’ so we need to hold them down to download all that history and knowledge before it is too late.

Ask DeGroff where he comes from and he goes off on one of his tours de force (he does a show, recounting his stories, interspersed with songs, the proceedings of which go to the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans which he is heavily involved with). His father was a naval pilot so he literally moved all over the place. Young DeGroff was born on one of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific but then the family were off. Naval bases in the US, aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. Rootless? You bet.

He wanted to be an actor. “I went to New York to be a big star,” said DeGroff, “but I could not get arrested as an actor,” he laughed. In his words, he made a mistake. He wanted to be the lead whereas he should have concentrated on his craft and maybe considered being the bad guy.

“I may have struggled to be an actor but I have found the restaurant business very fulfilling. I think I would have been a basket case by now if I had stayed an actor,” quips DeGroff

DeGroff had the fortune to have befriended Joe Baum the widely regarded restaurateur who was responsible for creating the US's first themed restaurants, including masterpieces such as The Four Seasons Restaurant, Windows on the World, and the restored Rainbow Room. He is widely acclaimed as the first restaurateur to bring the finest contemporary architects, artists and designers into his restaurant designs.

He also knew and worked with Jacques Pépin a famous French chef working in New York at the time, who became a TV personality and author.

Anyway, while DeGroff was waiting, hoping for a big break, he did waitering and dishwashing around New York. He was working at Charlie O’s in the Rockefeller Center. One evening there was an event at the mayor’s official residence, Gracie Mansion. The bartenders, Pat and Mike were union men so there was no way they were going to be involved with shifting stuff and working odd hours. A call went out and DeGroff went for it. He bluffed that he knew what he was doing and got the gig.

“I went to Mike and asked: ‘What are the 10 most popular drinks and how do you make them?’ He said: ‘You won’t need to know and you don’t have the facilities’. Nevertheless he took me through Tom Collins, Whisky Sours etc.

“He was right. I didn’t need to know. It was all Tabs (soft drink) and scotch or vodka on the rocks,” said DeGroff.

What was the event? Up-and-coming media mogul Rupert Murdoch had just bought the New York Post and was being given the ‘keys to the city’. Another piece of history DeGroff plucks out of the air.

DeGroff went out to Los Angeles and got a job in the famous Bel Air hotel. Millionaire recluse Howard Hughes routinely booked out 38 of the 68 suites and bedrooms year round. He had heard that the head bartender, Jim Kitchen, happened to be looking for a daytime shift bartender. After a brief interview and quick test, he got the job. Strangely, Kitchen told him to polish the bottles on the back bar so they “looked like jewels”. De Groff was mystified but soon found out that as the bar wasn’t that busy until 4pm, so he had plenty of time to do just that.

The downside was that few customers meant virtually no tips (the night shift did not share theirs in those days). The good news is that DeG put the time to good use. Not only did he polish the bottles but having never seen the likes of armagnac,calvados, port, sauternes and eaux-de-vie such as poire Williams, he tried them.

The man stayed at Be Air for five and a half years. He came back, linked up with Joe Baume and ran the legendary Rainbow Room in the Rockefeller Center.

DeGroff’s time at the Rainbow Room was career defining, the acme of his bartending life and it set standards at a time.

Most bars hitherto used ready made sour mixes, either from boxes, bags,powder, using guns. DeG made the crucial decision to go back to the basics. He researched original recipes and sourced ingredients to make the genuine articles. At one stage the Rainbow Room had 36 bartenders. At its height the Rainbow Room grossed between $26 and $30 million a year, claims DeGroff.

“Before Prohibition there were 1,200 (drinks/spirits) products,” said DeGroff. “After Prohibition there were 6,000. The only (single malt) scotches we had were Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.” After a pause: “And maybe Laphroaig. The only imported vodkas were Finlandia – and that was after ’74 – Stoli, Finlandia, then Absolut,” he reels off. He adds: “Smirnoff is a good vodka but you have to be careful where it comes from. Smirnoff in the US is an excellent vodka.”

He quips that a Sidecar he used to make was probably made with Christian Brothers’ brandy rather than cognac, but those were the days.

DeGroff flirts from one experience, era, to another smattering names of places and people along the way, making it nigh on impossible to retain a chronological order to his anecdotes.

He mentions that his acting skills helped him behind the sticks. “The voice lessons, learning poise and grace, they all helped behind the bar. Peter Dorelli (another legendary bartender) once remarked: ‘Style is the most important thing in the bar, particularly when you do not know what f*** you are doing!’”

But DeGroff is the consummate professional. He says he tells young bartenders starting out to go into the kitchen (assuming your bar is adjacent to a restaurant) and study the chef and his/her brigade. When it comes to prepping up, that is where you see the skills. DeGroff believes bartenders should have their own set of knives, not just one paring knife.

He berated a group that turned up with not one knife between them. There is also the ‘small question’ of hygiene, both personal and when handling ingredients. Garnishes may not be ‘food’ but they are likely to be consumed. But we’ll leave that there.

DeGroff is a giant in the bartending community. An international on-premise treasure. Fascinating to listen to, this man needs to get his experiences and anecdotes down somewhere for posterity. Cyberspace, paper - somewhere.

Wondrich: we need you to nail this guy.

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