Dale DeGroff, having spent most of his life behind a bar, is now justifiably considered King Cocktail.
He’s won countless accolades, he’s set up and worked at famous bars, while some of his cocktails are now classics and are served all over the world. Nowadays he’s mainly involved in educating young bar professionals and judging international cocktail competitions. It was at one of these events, the final of World Class 2014 in London, that we were able to get to know him better.
You’ve spent most of your life in bars all over the world. How easy is it for someone to wow you?
I haven’t been behind a bar for about 10 years now, but I have witnessed everything from the 70s to the 90s even up to after the millennium. I’ve lived through the golden age and I can truthfully say that we did great work at the Rainbow Room in the 90s. The thing is though that ‘great work’ in those days was when a bartender knew how to execute the classics well or when he used fresh ingredients to present a new recipe. In those days you didn’t get something new that often, so when it did happen, it was a big deal. It’s a whole different story these days. In the last 12 months for example, I found myself exploring smaller towns for the first time and moving away from capital cities. There are some great things happening and the level has been substantially raised. I’m sure this has a lot to do with the internet and with the fact that there are no real borders, so the exchange of ideas and information can have an immediate effect. A little while ago for example, I organised a sherry cocktail competition in NYC. Using sherry in drinks, even up to a few years ago, was unheard of. At the event we tried 12 great recipes and one of those, Lacy Hawkins’s from Brooklyn’s Clover Club, will represent us at the world final in Spain.
Recently we’ve been hearing more and more about the use of sherry in cocktails. Where do you attribute this?
Sherry is another one of those ingredients which has been redefined and as a result, has reappeared in bar menus. Lacy for example made a cocktail which had camomile bitters, a herb infused Dolin Blanc vermouth, a cognac and Spanish brandy mix and Lustau Moscatel sherry which you couldn’t get in the States until very recently. It was all rounded off with a Lustau Oloroso Sherry. This was not just a great drink but an even greater idea so you can see how it’s now become a whole separate cocktail category. I’m sure the same must be happening in Greece as I’ve travelled and worked there many times over the years.
How easy is it for a drink guru like yourself to stay on top of the continuously changing bar world?
To be perfectly honest it really does help being a judge at all these major international competitions, like the sherry one I’ve just mentioned. On top of that I am always on the move with the rest of my team, as we constantly train young bartenders. We’ll be travelling to Los Angeles next to train 150 professionals, which is very unique for that part of the world especially. Let’s not forget that up until relatively recently, no one cared about cocktails as casinos wanted them done on the cheap so they could hand them out for free in their thousands. These days every casino wants to hire the best bartenders possible. Even my son is doing exactly that; making cocktails for 25,000 people!
That truly is a crazy number of drinks…How did you react when your son announced he wanted to be a bartender?
I was actually very happy about it as it seemed perfectly natural. I had him assist me from the time he was a teenager when he used to do all my prep. It was therefore the most logical path for him to take.
What do you think about the new drink trends? Pre-batched cocktails, molecular techniques and various other developments along those lines?
I take them as they come. I will never say ‘this technique isn’t good’ or `that process is not for me’. If it works then I’m for it, whatever that may be. Pre-batching, for example, is essential in certain circumstances whether we like to admit it or not. On the other hand, there is obviously a good way and a bad way to pre-mix or package a drink. You should never use ingredients with a limited sell by date or those which are likely to oxidise; those should always be added at the end. If you’re working in a bar, which serves tons of Long Island Teas, a classic cocktail with five different ingredients, then it will make your life a hell of a lot easier if you’ve premixed them at the start of your shift. That way when the customer orders one all you have to do is add Coke and lemon and you’re done! In the case of a very busy bar, pre-batching is basically the only way you can run a business as you need fast service and a consistent product. Recently we’ve also seen a rise in aged cocktails, which can also work depending on the situation: a cocktail might improve in a barrel or it could become pretty disappointing. It all comes down to a matter of personal taste. For me an aged Negroni spoils its main character so I will always prefer that recipe when it’s fresh. You have to weigh up the practicalities and what is objectively the ‘right’ flavour.
With all these new recipes constantly created around the world, do you think any of them stand a chance being placed next to cocktails like the Martini or Daiquiri?
Of course! There are many drinks, which are more or less considered classics, and are served around the world. Take for example Audrey Sanders’s drinks like the Ginger Mule or the Old Cuban or from the younger generation, Phil Ward’s Oaxaca Old Fashioned with mescal and tequila. Let’s not forget the Vodka Espresso or the Bramble, two of Dick Bradsell’s recipes, which we can find anywhere. From my own arsenal, the Ritz and the Fitzgerald are widely known, or the Anejo Highball which is very popular in Australia. Simply put, yes we will continue to see many cocktails being described as classics or even modern classics like in the case of many automobiles. Nothing can really be a classic if it’s younger than 25 years old.
From your position of ‘King Cocktail’, have you spotted a ‘Prince’ from the younger generation?
There are so many of them that I couldn’t name them all. You saw 45 of them at the World Class final in London and as you noticed the older one won! The rest of them were kids which was amazing in itself!
What’s the most common mistake these ‘kids’ make?
There are many young professionals who don’t appreciate the art of hospitality but the market itself will see to that. If you’re good at what you do, people and the market as a whole will show you respect. We have recently seen top level technique on show behind a bar but to a point where everything else was put to the wayside. What good is technique when the bar stools are empty? Getting people on those seats is the sign of a bartender’s true talent and the gift that turns him into a pro! I don’t want to sound cynical but, like it or not, we are an industry which depends on people spending money.
A little while ago we had the first wave of heats for the Greek World Class competition. I was amazed at how demanding the brief was. It basically suggested that being a bartender is no easy feat. It requires talent, knowledge, creativity, theatricality and a load of other skills, which we never thought would be necessary. As a judge don’t you think that it’s getting harder and harder to get noticed as a bartender?
If you want to train for the World Class, you more or less have to take a year off from everything else as it has become exactly what you’ve just described. That’s why the majority of the competitors are young, with very little in the way of professional commitments so they can focus on the event for a long period of time. It is a huge commitment so the finalists have to be sure they can see it through. On the other hand, we shouldn’t forget that competing or even winning does not necessarily prove how good you are at your job. The competition is merely a choice. We always tell the finalists that we consider it a win for them to get through the process, whether they get first place or not.
Do you think customers understand this whole competitive side of bartending?
Competitions are there just for the industry itself. I don’t think people care about them. I’m sure they’d be happy to toast their local bartender who has done well in one of them but that’s about it. Other than that, this whole thing is for moving our industry forward. Diageo for example, who happen to own some of the best international brands, hope to get some good will in return for staging the competitions and every year they get that so they can go on boasting that what they offer is something extra special.
What is it in your opinion, that makes the winner of World Class 2014 the best bartender of the year?
His experience and maturity, which is what would have got him through each stage of the competition. I think these would have impressed the judges more than his undeniable talent.
If you were to choose one moment, which would you say was the pinnacle of your career?
I would easily say that they would be the years I spent at New York’s Rainbow Room, working with the genius that was Joseph Baum; he had been trying to change the way we drank and ate in the US since the 50s. I was fortunate to work with him from 1984 to 1999 and those were definitely the best years of my professional life. I worked with a visionary but also a man who always wanted the best and most forward thinking options both for his staff and his business. I owe him a lot as he encouraged me and was always thinking about 30 years ahead of everyone else in his field. Even then, he wanted his bartenders to make everything from scratch and everything that went into the drinks to be fresh. I’ll never forget presenting him with a recipe for summer punch and him simply saying ‘What kind of punch are you wanting to serve?’ meaning that I shouldn’t be serving anything unless I understood its history.
If you were asked to set up a new cocktail bar today, what would it be like and what would it serve?
I wouldn’t be doing anything different to what the market was asking for. I would try to sense what people wanted, just like the New York Bar or the legendary American Bar in London used to do. Both of those establishments would manage everything down to the last detail; from the bar stool height, where you would place your bag, how the staff would address you and where you could place your feet. Everything worked like clockwork and that’s what made them world famous. That’s exactly what I would recommend to a market place that didn’t already have something similar. I wouldn’t attempt to do this in New York which has many great bars already and obviously gave birth to the term ‘New York Bar’ itself. A bar like that in New Orleans or Southern California wouldn’t seem like a bad idea though. Imagine a classic saloon with spectacular cocktails and really good food. It sounds pretty good, no?
Which new things do you think we should expect from the cocktail world?
Every year I see so many new things that I really don’t know where this industry is going next. There is definitely a trend for bars moving towards the kitchen, something along the lines of what’s happening in restaurants; classic recipes reinvented through modern techniques, with a nod to fusion cuisine and more unusual ingredients. I was recently reading about Baijiu, which is the no1 seller in China while in Europe and the US most of us have never even heard of it. It is great to see these kinds of spirits getting into cocktails in the Western World, an interesting fusion of different cultures.
What should we be expecting from you?
I am travelling non-stop and doing training sessions at the moment. I have also put together a tasting inspired by the Manhattan. I take the traditional recipe and split it into five different parts. In every one of those parts I suggest a different bitter so I can demonstrate how much the drink changes with each one. This process works in an educational sense but also opens my eyes as I keep learning about the history and provenance of many different ingredients I can use to make bitters with. All this until the prep for the final of World Class begins of course as there is no time for anything else when that kicks in…
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