Q&A: Dale DeGroff - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Dale DeGroff

Story: Penelope Bass

Photo: Daniel Krieger

If you’ve enjoyed a craft cocktail at any point in the last three decades, the odds are good that, one way or another, Dale DeGroff had something to do with it. The self-crowned “King Cocktail,” DeGroff has been influencing the industry since his days behind the bar at places like the Rainbow Room in the ’80s and ’90s. Whether reviving historic cocktails, creating modern classics like the Fitzgerald, or mentoring the next generation of bartenders through the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) program, DeGroff helped define the modern cocktail movement. His first book, The Craft of the Cocktail, now in its 18th printing, remains an essential handbook for many in the industry, and a fully revised edition, The New Craft of the Cocktail (Clarkson Potter), hits shelves in September. We talked with DeGroff about the cyclical nature of cocktails, what he’s learned from his own students, and why it’s so difficult for him to order a drink these days.

You first released The Craft of the Cocktail in 2002; why did you feel now was the time for an update? I always thought of The Craft of the Cocktail as a book of its time; it was a book that was needed in 2002. So many of the cocktail books were just lists of ingredients with no resources, no pictures. I put together something like what I would have needed when I was 22 years old and trying to figure this all out. Plus, it had 500 recipes including a lot of the classics and stuff that was popular over the last 20 or 30 years. But as time went on, I realized how much had changed and needed to be updated starting with the recipes, none of which were brand-specific. We have so many more products on the market than we did in 2002. There are 7,000 gins out there internationally—it’s incredible! And there is such an emphasis now on ingredients for cocktails that are crafted to match that particular drink, which wasn’t a consideration when I did this book the first time. In the history [section] the first time, I didn’t even talk about the growth of the craft-cocktail  movement. I had one line—“In the new Millennium, the stars of the culinary world are going to be bartenders.” And not a lot of people believed that at the time, but it actually kind of came to be. But I wanted to tell more of the story of why—why we ended up in 2020 with this extraordinary culinary cocktail, this extraordinary reinvention, almost from whole cloth, of the way we think of cocktails. 

You were a pioneer in those types of freshly made, culinary-focused cocktails, which are now the norm. What do you see as the next revolution for the cocktail world?
My theory is that drinks like the Martini, they have a two- generation lifespan before they get reinvented. I wrote about the evolution of the Martini, and I present the idea that the Martini started as a five-ingredient sweet drink in 1888, when it was first published by Harry Johnson in that edition. And then it ends up a two-ingredient, extraordinarily dry drink by  the 1960s. It went through many iterations along the way that fell into roughly two-generation gaps. That tells the story of how the cocktail changed from really being much more Baroque and floral and sweet in the middle of the 19th century to where it ended up in the mid-20th century. Look at the ’80s and ’90s when we had all the “-tinis” and everything got really sweet again, with lots of fruit juice and sweet liqueurs. Then with the craft movement, we went back to a drier style. But we also went back to visiting drinks like the Fifty Fifty Cocktail, which was published in Hugo Ensslin’s book in 1917 with half vermouth, half gin, no bitters. Audrey [Saunders] put that on her menu at Pegu Club as the Fitty-Fitty Martini, and that was the first time I had one. But I think what will also happen is that you’ll start to see these long ingredient lists continuing to diminish even further. It’s not feasible for a lot of reasons. Everyone wants dashes of this, touches of that … but in many cases, those flavor elements are just not showing in the final drink in any significant way. 

You’ve devoted a great deal of your career to educating and mentoring bartenders; what have you learned from the people you mentored who went on to become very successful? I’ve learned a tremendous amount. Audrey I’ve known the longest because she took my class at NYU when I was teaching at their hotel school, which was my first teaching gig. She then went to work for me at Aurora. Working behind the bar with her and watching her style, and then watching her when she had her own bar, is when I really learned from her. The way she developed her menu, even a Gin & Tonic was a two-week process. She went through every tonic and every gin on the market with all the bartenders. Every drink that went on the menu, the iterations they went through were endless. That’s kind of where I got the idea of crafting the drinks in the new book by being exacting about the products used. Also, the bar business was a cutthroat business when I got into it. There were no bar “teams.” You had a register and the guy at the other end of the bar had a register, and the owner pitted the two of you against each other, vying for territory. The only real community was throwing a $20 bill down at your mate’s bar and you’d drink free all night, and he’d do the same at your bar. It was not a team affair. But I think the craft movement has brought the team idea to fruition in a huge way. 

What’s your go-to cocktail order? It used to be a lot easier to answer this question. I used to say, “Beefeater gin, Noilly Prat, 7-to-1, olive and a twist.” It used to be very easy for me. Or if I was drinking whisky, it was Glenlivet on the rocks. But now, I walk into these bars and I just say, “Make me something.” Because these folks are so good, and they want to show off, and I don’t want to miss that.



Recipes mentioned in this article:

Pegu Club Fitty-Fitty Martini

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