Raise a glass to Dale DeGroff, king of the cocktail

Myffy Rigby
The king of cocktails, Dale DeGroff, says a good disposition and a repertoire of jokes are a bartender's best tools.
The king of cocktails, Dale DeGroff, says a good disposition and a repertoire of jokes are a bartender's best tools. Photo: Christopher Pearce

They call him King Cocktail. At 69 years old, Dale DeGroff is one of the world's most famous bartenders. He's the recipient of multiple James Beard Awards, he's the author of two of the modern cocktail world's most influential books – The Essential Cocktail and Craft of the Cocktail. He's lent his name to a line of bitters. He created an entire museum in New Orleans devoted to preserving the history of American cocktails. He lectures and teaches at NYU.

During his reign at New York's famous Rainbow Room in the 1980s, he got people drinking better, reviving forgotten classics during the era of Long Island Iced Teas and blender daiquiris, when big hair could only be bigger and greed was good.

He applied everything he'd learnt through travels eating and drinking around the world to draw people away from the sweet-sour mixes and sodas they were used to, and introduce them to more complex, savoury drinks. Enjoyed a proper margarita, daiquiri, sidecar or stinger lately? You have DeGroff to thank for that.

He credits his time living in Spain and Morocco with his father, an officer in the US Navy, with giving him a head start on his contemporaries. When he landed in New York in the 1960s, fresh out of high school with aspirations of becoming an actor, he found himself working in the mailroom of a small Manhattan ad agency.

One of its biggest accounts was the American arm of Restaurant Associates, whose president was Joe Baum, the man who hired the likes of James Beard and Julia Child as restaurant consultants and would eventually bring the Rockefeller Centre's Rainbow Room back to its 1930s glory.

The young DeGroff would find himself taken along to dinners with Baum, usually as company cannon fodder for the restaurateur's sharp wit. "We would go to these meals – one dinner with these guys would probably be equal to my monthly rent," says DeGroff. "I watched him in action – going to a new restaurant, tasting everything on the menu with a big group of people, how he dealt with the staff. It was an eye-opener."

In New York, bars are where you live.

Dale DeGroff

But DeGroff still needed to get that acting bug out of his system. Cue a move to Los Angeles in the late '70s, where he lucked into a job as a day bartender. Back then, bartenders weren't stars; they served them. It was while working at the Hotel Bel-Air (where some of the most candid nude pictures of regular guest Marilyn Monroe were taken) that he started to take bartending seriously.

In the pre-internet era, he had to learn on his feet, relying on his genial personality to make up for the gaps in his knowledge. "I was sort of a sappy, good-natured kind of guy, and people liked that. I got over for five years with that act when I didn't know what I was doing."

It wasn't until a customer came in one day asking for a margarita that he really got schooled.

Advertisement

"I got a couple of lime wheels and I squeezed them and then I got the sour mix and the guy goes, 'Bartender, stop. Stop. Jesus Christ. Do me a favour. See the brown square bottle up there? It's Cointreau. Bring that over here. Give me that tequila. Bring me the limes.' So, he proceeds to squeeze and mix, and then he pushes the tin over and says, 'Can you shake this for me, please?' I was so f---ing mortified. I'm like, 'Oh, that's what a fresh margarita is.' I had no clue."

DeGroff eventually settled into LA, and started a family, all the while learning the trade at the Bel-Air. But then he got a call from an old friend in NYC.

Joe Baum was looking for a head bartender for Aurora, an intimate French diner in the Rockefeller Centre. He got the gig, and in 1984, headed back east. The brief was to recreate the spirit of a 19th-century bar – no mixers, no soda guns and legitimate classic recipes. Baum tasked DeGroff with tracking down a copy of How To Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas. "He didn't tell me it was written in 1862."

At the time, he couldn't see the point of digging up all those old drinks. Until Benny "King of Swing" Goodman sat at his bar. "I went over to the wine master, and said, 'What's going on? Why is the famous Benny Goodman waiting for Joe Baum?' 'It's a Rainbow Room thing,' says the guy. I said, 'What Rainbow Room thing?' He says, 'You don't know? Where have you been, pal?' "

The Rainbow Room, when he finally secured the job there, was the making of DeGroff. He started collecting recipe books filled with long-forgotten classics. Soon enough, people were visiting the bar, learning how to drink cocktails for grown-ups – classics that were balanced, savoury and lean.

For the bartender it was as simple as flipping a switch – he had found his groove. "You know, it takes you 30 seconds after moving to New York to realise that bars are where you want to be. You start collecting them. You're thinking about bars all the time because in New York, they are where you live."

Quickfire corner

Music to shake to At the Rainbow Room I had a guitar player right there at the corner of the bar where I'd be working, shaking [cocktails]. Every once in a while when I'm shaking, he'd start playing. We'd get this little thing going and see how long it took the customers at the bar to realise that I'm shaking in time to Brazil. It was a hoot. Finally Joe came in one day and he said, 'Lose the guitar player.' So that was the end of him.

Bucket list drink A gin martini, straight up with an olive and a twist is my go-to drink.

Indispensable bar tool A good disposition. And my repertoire of stories and jokes.

Formative drinks moment First time I went to New Orleans with my girlfriend. You could camp at these little sites within the city limits, so we set up a tent and went into town. We didn't get back for 24 hours. We just got into the French Quarter and never left. Unbelievable. I went into the Old Absinthe House. There was a woman behind the bar. She was tough and she had tattoos. She's like, 'What do you kids want?' 'Sazeracs.' She takes the glass and she tosses it high, and she yells, 'Sazerac!' She sprayed everybody at the bar, pretty much right across our faces. Then boom, back down to the bar, she finishes making the drinks and slides it down to us. Amazing.

Dale DeGroff travelled throughout Australia in August on behalf of De Kuyper Liqueurs.