A mentor to the nation’s top bartenders and recipient of a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, Dale DeGroff, in the span of his three decades in the industry, has undoubtedly earned the moniker by which he’s best known: King Cocktail.
Though he moved to New York in the 1960s to pursue acting, it was behind the bar that DeGroff ultimately found the spotlight. His hospitality career began with a position as a cocktail waiter at New York’s now-shuttered Charley O’s, run by restaurateur Joe Baum, followed by a chance stint out West as a bartender at the renowned Beverly Hills Hotel. Feeling as though he was under-qualified for the position, DeGroff began an independent course of study, tasting through the bottles on the backbar during slow day shifts to educate himself on spirits and mixers. With a newly honed skill and dedication to the subject, he returned to New York in 1985 to once again work for Baum, this time behind the bar at the newly opened Aurora. Before long, the success of that bar program had propelled him to the position of head bartender at the famed Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, where he began introducing classic cocktails to a new generation of drinkers. As Robert Simonson observes of DeGroff in A Proper Drink, “At a time when bartenders largely winged it, he chose to give a damn.”
Indeed, it was at the Rainbow Room that, over the course of a decade, DeGroff laid the foundation for the ensuing cocktail revival—swapping artificial sour mix for fresh citrus and re-introducing the public to long-forgotten classics like the Sazerac and the Ramos Gin Fizz, gleaned from the pages of old cocktail books (Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks, for one), which at the time were still oft-overlooked titles. Reviving these historic recipes instilled in DeGroff a respect for both the classics and the importance of fresh ingredients, something that earned him the reputation as the father of modern mixology.
Here, King Cocktail on the three drinks that define his style.
“I researched [Jerry] Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks inside and out…when I did the first menu for Rainbow. Two sections caught my eye: numbers 87, Juleps, and 97, Cobblers. The Whiskey Cobbler rocked my world. The recipe was four simple lines: ‘2 wine glasses of whiskey’ (that would have been 4 ounces!), ‘1 tablespoon sugar, 2 or 3 slices of orange. Fill tumbler with ice, and shake well. Imbibe through a straw.’
“It wasn’t a good drink as listed, [but] what rocked my world was Thomas shaking fresh fruit in a cocktail. I totally riffed for four pages in Craft on cobblers, all inspired by those two or three pieces of orange tossed into the shaker by Thomas.”
“I took that [cobbler] idea and added it to Thomas’ Whiskey Smash recipe, which he called ‘simply a julep on a short plan.’ (I was bored with juleps made with just sugar booze and mint.) When I came up with the Whiskey Smash variation [in the late 1980s], I didn’t just shake the fruit in the drink—I muddled it with mint.
“In 2005, when Bobby Flay opened Bar Americain, I did the drinks. The one that really had legs was the Whiskey Smash variation. Jackson Cannon put in on the menu at Eastern Standard… [then] lots of pals put the Whiskey Smash on their menus as a tribute; Audrey [Saunders] at Pegu and Julie [Reiner] at Flatiron and Clover. I added peaches for the summer version. I published the recipe in Essential Cocktail…with Curaçao instead of simple as the sweetener.”
“2005 was a year for unusual gigs. I was hired by Cuervo tequila to create a drink to celebrate the Broadway show Sweet Charity. Cuervo wanted a special tequila drink to serve at the bar in the theater, made with their Gran Centenario Añejo.
‘The show had a hit song called ‘Big Spender,’ and that hit me as a natural for the drink; it placed the recipe in the luxury category and that was perfect. Well, we did the luxury version for the opening, but decided that beyond the opening we might need to lower the cost of sales a bit.”