It’s good to be king. Especially if what you’re reigning over is the world of cocktails. Dale DeGroff, who bears the nickname “King Cocktail,” is best known for essentially fathering the modern craft-cocktail renaissance: He single-handedly resurrected and revived craft cocktails in the 1980s during his time at the Rainbow Room, where he dredged up recipes for pre-Prohibition cocktails and pioneered the use of fresh ingredients instead of the then-ubiquitous mixes. Since that time, he’s won two James Beard Awards, written two books that are now considered essential bartending guides, and is the founding president of the Museum of the American Cocktail.
In short: You drink how you do today because of this man.
In a recent talk at The Dead Rabbit as part of the London Sessions, DeGroff told about his early-career successes (and failures) and his somewhat-meandering path to the cocktail world—including what it was like to work for Joe Baum, one of the most notable restaurateurs of the past century. Here are a few of the anecdotes he shared.
On his first job in NYC:
This is my first alma mater. Yeah. Howard Johnson’s. I saw the little sign in the window in Times Square that said “Dishwasher wanted.” And I was desperate for a job; I was pretty much at the end of my money. So I went in and I said, “I see you’re hiring.” “Yeah, no, we’re looking for a dishwasher.” “Yeah, that’d be what I’m looking for.” “What’re you talking about? You speak English.” Well, yeah. I didn’t get that either. I said, “I’d just really like the job.” He says, “Well, suit yourself, pal.” And he hired me! So years later, fast forward, I ran into Jacques Pepin’s daughter at a party; I used to run into her a lot at events. And she said, “I’m going on to my dad’s tasting thing; have you ever met my dad?” I said, “No, I’d love to meet him.” She said, “Well, come on! We’ll go.” So I go, and we go in, and finally she brings me over and she says, “Dad, this is Dale DeGroff from Joe Baum’s Rainbow Room.” “Oh! Dale Degroff, I know the… Joe Baum! Cocktails, yes, yes.” I said, “Well, you know, it’s not such a big deal. I actually worked at Howard Johnson’s not too long ago.” “Howard Johnson’s? I too worked at Howard Johnson’s!” I said, “Get outta here!” The guy was the chef for Charles DeGaulle, right? And I’m like, “Really?” And he goes, “Why do you think I come here? When they make the hotels, they call me to come and work in this place, this Times Square, I developed the dishes for the hotel.” I said, “Oh my god, we were colleagues! You were inventing them and I was washing them!” He got a good one out of that.
On learning from customers:
In 1959, Joe Baum opened one of his most memorable restaurants [The Four Seasons]. A Picasso from the Ballets Russes hung as you walked in the Park Avenue entrance of the Seagrams building. It was a theater ballet curtain, and there’s a great story about this curtain. Six months into the opening, Joe met an elderly couple at the front door, and he says, “How do you do? Joseph Baum, welcome to the Four Seasons. May I take your coats?” And he starts to walk them in, and he says, “Pause just a moment in front of our Picasso.” And the woman takes her pince-nez and she goes like this, “Oh, yes. A bit faded, isn’t it?” Joe had been getting a lot of complaints, you know: These ashtrays are too small; the tables are too close to the pool. And he just kind of lost it for a minute, and he said, “Apparently you have no idea how much time, money, and effort went into hanging this Picasso here so you could enjoy it on your way to your table.” She said, “Oh, I beg your pardon! I just meant that it’s faded since we owned it.” And that’s supposedly—and who cares whether it’s true or not—the moment that he coined the line, The customer is always right.
On learning on the job:
I worked out in Los Angeles, and it changed my life, obviously. I worked at the beautiful Hotel Bel-Air. And I gotta tell ya, hotel jobs are the coolest jobs. The people, it’s just everyone comes in. And this particular hotel? Oh my god. Next door, Sly Stallone. On the hill across the street, Red Buttons. Down the street, of course, Harry. And below Harry was Jim Skakel, the owner of North American Coke. The Bel-Air was just the most extraordinary place. So before I even left New York, on my way out there, a friend called and said, “I hear you’re coming out. I know you’re working over at Charley’s. As soon as you get there, go over to the Hotel Bel-Air, because there’s something happening over there, I know there’s a day job, and it’s a really exclusive place.” So sure enough, I drive my 1969 Dodge Dart out to the hotel and drove into the valet parking, the guys parked my beauty, and off I go. I walked into the bar; this big red-faced Irishman was behind the bar, named James Kitchens. He was the head bartender, the guy who did all the fancy weddings, Reagan’s kid and all that. He was stuck behind the bar until he could fill that job. And I walked in the door and said, “Hi, I heard you’re hiring bartenders.” “Yeah. I am. Where’d you work?” “Charley O’s in New York.” He’d heard of Charley O’s. It was a Joe Baum place. Charley’s was hot shit. Because stuff you see that’s called Charley O’s out there now? No no no no. This was in Rockefeller Center. Sure, it was an Irish bar, but it was where Pat Moynahan threw his St. Paddy’s Day breakfast for the mayor and the senator and the bishop and everybody. It was a hot-shit place. “Yeah, I heard’a it. Step behind the bar. Pour me a shot.” He wanted to find out if I’d ever picked up a bottle. “Make me a sidecar.” No problem. You want just the sour mix? No problem. Because that was what we had in those days. “Okay, come back tomorrow, white shirt, black pants, tie; we’ll supply the jacket; we’ll give you a couple of days to try out.” So I got the gig! And he said to me—when I walked in the next morning, he was waiting for me—“Okay, young man. Over here. Those bottles? I want ‘em to look like jewels. And I mean, jewels. Polish ‘em until they look like jewels.” Now, here I go. I looked at them, I’m picking these bottles up, and I’m getting more and more terrified. Tawny port… calvados… vintage port… eau de vie? I hadn’t poured any of this stuff! I’d worked in an Irish bar! So what am I doing? I’m going like this, you know. [Mimes tasting from the bottles.] There’s nobody there! It’s the daytime! Within a month, I’d tasted my way through everything I didn’t know. This guy was no dummy. He knew I didn’t have a f**king clue. He knew. If I’d been a regular bartender he would not have told me to polish those bottles. He was a smart, smart guy.
On making occasional mistakes:
So the day shift [at the Hotel Bel-Air] was interesting; nobody showed up until right before my shift ended, and then all of the tips went to the nighttime bartenders. But sometimes we had a few people wander in, and one day an elderly couple came wandering in, so I served them tea and coffee and then lunch. I was kind of new on the job, and the manager had said, “Listen, Bud Herrmann [the evening pianist] has broken the lock on the piano and he doesn’t want anyone to play it.” You know, when he was there, he didn’t care, he would let some people play it, and a lot of people would, some amazing people. Phyllis Diller was an amazingly accomplished classic pianist, who could tell jokes while she was playing. So. The guy is at the piano, his hands are right over the keys. And I run over and say, “Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry, I’m sure you play beautifully. But Bud Herrmann, the nighttime man, you see…” And the guy got up and said, “No, no, it’s perfectly all right,” and he goes to sit down. So then I go and get the check, which he has signed as a guest in the hotel. And I get right on the phone to the office: “Please tell me that this guy who just signed a check ‘Vladimir Horowitz’ is not THE Vladimir Horowitz?” “Oh yes. Mr. Horowitz has a concert in town. He’s staying with us.” So I ran over to the table and I said, “Mr. Horowitz, please play the piano!” I must be the only person on the face of the earth who told Vladimir Horowitz not to play the f**king piano. I couldn’t believe it. I could’ve had a private concert!
On the current “cocktail revolution”:
You know what? When the culinary revolution started out, we had nouvelle cuisine and California cuisine. Does anybody remember nouvelle and California cuisine? It was a plate about this big. And in the center was a big sea scallop. And there were nine little colored dots around it. Ooh, here’s the carrot; oh, there’s the eggplant; oh, this is the… And that was 40 dollars. That was the entrée. So, you know, it started out kind of clumsy, the whole culinary revolution. It was a little goofy, some of the stuff they did. But eventually what happened is, we’ve gotten to the point where we now, as diners—not just in the United States but worldwide, it seems—have more choices, have more extraordinary styles and types of food; the fusion thing has gone through the roof. In this country, the Zagat guide, which started with 13 ethnic cuisines in the back, now has over 100 in the back. So what I’m getting at here is, there was a little clumsiness in the beginning of the craft bar thing. And it still goes on a little bit. But I think people are getting it. They’re getting that they’ve got to make drinks faster. They’re getting that they’ve got to figure out that aspect. They’re getting that service—and FUN—is really where it’s at. I think there’s still a few speakeasies left around where everybody makes you wait 25 minutes for a drink. And I think those guys… The market will take care of it. You can’t stay in business making a drink every 25 minutes. The market will simply take care of it. And I think the people who are good at what we do, craft or not, will rise to the top, and it’ll be what happened with food. The thing is, all the drinks will be better than they were before. That’s what is really good: They’ll be better than they were before.
On his perhaps most notable contribution to the bartending lexicon:
The word mixology? I’ll take the rap for it. I called myself a “master mixologist” at the Rainbow Room. That word is not—at least it wasn’t back then—it was not in the dictionary, it was not even in the slang dictionary at the New York Times. It was in the old books that I dug out—there were mixicologists, mixology, all these weird words—they were not 20th century words at all. I brought them back and I pissed a lot of people off, but I did it because I wanted people to see we were doing something that no one else was doing, and it worked. That’s all I care about. You can call yourself whatever you want. It worked for me.
Oh, and you’re probably wondering what we were all sipping on as DeGroff spoke. Here’s the delicious cocktail he created.
Monkey Shoulder Retooled Old Fashioned
2 oz. Monkey Shoulder whisky
0.5 oz. Cockburn’s Fine Tawny Port
1 small lump of sugar
1 dash Angostura Bitters
1 dash Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Bitters
1 quarter round slice of orange
2 Bordeaux Cherries
Splash of water
Muddle one cherry, the orange slice, the sugar, both bitters, and a splash of water together. Carefully remove the cherry husk and orange rind without losing the flavor paste in the bottom of the glass. Add the whisky, port, and ice, and stir well to chill and dilute. Strain into an old fashioned glass with ice, and garnish with the remaining Bordeaux cherry.