Drinks master Dale DeGroff, aka King Cocktail, recently launched his own brand of Pimento Aromatic Bitters. You can see him in the documentary “Hey, Bartender” and tickets to his occasional cabaret show “On the Town” were sold-out yesterday at Manhattan’s Macao Trading Co.
Later this month the onetime Rainbow Room barkeep, who brought glamour and a chef’s precision to the art of mixing drinks, heads to Lebanon to guest judge a Beirut cocktail contest.
DeGroff was in D.C. when I spoke to him on the phone about the cocktail scene.
Smith: So what’s up in D.C.?
DeGroff: We have kind of a boot camp for bartenders called BarSmarts. After Prohibition, bartending wasn’t a very savory profession because it had been dominated by gangsters. It’s only recently that people have actually seen it as a real career path.
Smith: What’s the worst current trend?
DeGroff: A lot of the young bartenders today will use 10 ingredients and you can’t focus in on a single flavor. Look at the classics that have really survived; the Manhattan, three ingredients; the martini, three ingredients.
The trumpeter Roy Eldridge told me “When I was a young cat, I played all of the notes. Now, I play the right notes.”
Smith: Tell me about the early days of the cocktail revolution.
DeGroff: In 1987, when I went to work at the Rainbow Room, there weren’t any cocktail menus around. So we re-introduced drinks that probably hadn’t been seen since Prohibition. Ramos Gin Fizz, Between the Sheets, Side Car -- nobody was making these drinks back then, they were dead.
There were no fresh juices. That was the era of the soda can and the sour mix.
Smith: What about prices these days?
DeGroff: The pressure from the market is for premium and ultra-premium and luxury brand spirits. The prices had to go up. How could they not?
Smith: What do you think about bartenders becoming famous?
DeGroff: It has become a glamorous profession. I was doing a lot of teaching in the 1990s and I’d say, “Mark my words gentlemen, be the chef of your bar, learn about ingredients, learn about your tools, be good at this because this may be the decade of the star chef but the first decade of the new millennium is going to be the decade of the star bartender.” And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
Smith: What’s happening with the cocktail museum?
DeGroff: The museum is now packed up and we’re moving to a new neighborhood. A good deal of the money came from the city, some from the contractor and some from us. So we’ll be three owners and we’ll never have to move again.
People think, oh, cocktail museum, right! What do you do? Sit around boozing it up? It was very hard to make people understand that there is an interesting and exceptionally rich area of study about how this whole cocktail thing developed in America, filled with artifacts and stories and it’s marvelous.
Smith: What are your favorite bars in new York?
DeGroff: Pegu Club has the best cocktails in town, hands down. Employees Only and Macao, those guys do extraordinary stuff. They’re all students of mine.
Smith: What’s your go-to drink?
DeGroff: Gin martini straight up with an olive and a twist.
Smith: Do you ever have hangovers?
DeGroff: If you didn’t have a hangover you weren’t trying hard enough.
(Catherine Smith writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and Craig Seligman on books.