Dale DeGroff: The embodiment of mixology innovation

By Lisa Michaels

With a nickname like King Cocktail, there’s bound to be a story behind it. Master mixologist Dale DeGroff has seen and heard a lot in his career, as the origin of his nickname attests.

“It was the height of the dot com era and a producer came into the Rainbow Room in need of a drink. I convinced her to let me surprise her with a cocktail and she loved it. After trying 6 different cocktails, she pronounced me King Cocktail,” recalls DeGroff with a chuckle. “Who knew it would stick!”

How DeGroff developed his reputation and came to run the bar at the legendary Rainbow Room is another story. Coming to New York City to be an actor in 1969, DeGroff ended up working as a bartender. Some of his colleagues behind the bar had been working since the days of prohibition, the Depression and the war years – a stretch of time when bartenders had to make do with less and cheap mixes were the norm.It was then when DeGroff happened to meet legendary restaurateur Joseph Baum.

“Joe Baum had been hired to oversee the restoration of the famous Rainbow Room and make it the best place to eat in New York City. He wanted me to run the bar, but to make the drinks as good as the food – fresh squeezed juice, the best ingredients, really great cocktails. He told me to read Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks. Turns out it was published in 1862,” laughs DeGroff.

Joe Baum’s vision extended beyond food and drink to restaurant décor and server fashion. “Joe hired a costume designer to create the uniforms for all the staff. The restaurant was designed in the Art Deco style and ended up garnering world-wide press not just for the food but for the experience of eating there.”

It was certainly way beyond the norm for the bar and restaurant screen in those days. Bars were often an afterthought, but Baum’s bar was going to be integral to the entire experience.

Service in the dining room was, in DeGroff’s words, “friendly but not familiar.” The theory was that a patron in the dining room was renting a private space and the waiter should not be an interloper to private conversations. At the bar, however, the feeling was more of a shared open space, where the bartender wanted everyone to be comfortable and taken care of, a real host.

“I didn’t hire bartenders, I hired conversationalists,” says DeGroff. “There weren’t any bartending schools anyway; no one had any product knowledge like they do today. I want people who could make our customers feel comfortable and then I trained them to create big, fresh, real flavours using all sorts of ingredients that had never been in a cocktail.” That freshness is now integral to today’s cocktails.

DeGroff hired an initial 34 bartenders when the Rainbow Room opened – and never had to hire another one, as they all stayed, happy to be working in a place where creativity was the rule of the bar. It was a thrill to be a part of what became a world-wide phenomenon.

In 2009, DeGroff was honoured to be the first bartender to win the Outstanding Wine and Spirits Award given out by the James Beard Foundation. In 2015, he received his second James Beard award when he was inducted to the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.

All those years of self-study and training staff, along with teaching some night courses at NYU, led DeGroff to start the Beverage Alcohol Resources (BAR) educational program, offering comprehensive training and bartender boot camps. Together with five colleagues, experts in the areas of wine, spirits, whisky, beverage history and education, they offer a wide variety of training programs

As the originator of the craft cocktail movement, DeGroff is pleased that innovation has become the standard for modern mixologists. After all, why use artificial flavour shortcuts when it’s easy to squeeze fresh juice or make simple syrup from scratch. For him, education is the key to the innovation trend. Knowledge is what makes an experienced bartender invaluable to high-end bars, restaurants and hotels around the world.

These days, he sees chefs and bartenders working as a team, creating thoughtful pairings of food and alcohol.“We need to get rid of the artificial mixes on the bar side. We need bars designed for the 21st century, with fresh, visible, inviting ingredients under lit glass-top bars with refrigerated pull-out doors. If we keep on that path, it won’t be long until we have celebrity bartenders just like we have chefs.”

When asked about the hot spots for cocktails on the worldwide scene, he mentions the usual suspects, New York and London, but adds Australia, Greece, Warsaw and Kiev. In Canada, DeGroff points to Vancouver as one of the global hot spots in craft bartending, with Toronto not far behind.

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