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 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. 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.
To find out what he’s up to these days, we asked DeGroff to take a stab at our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his strangest cocktail experiment and weirdest drink request, the first time he ever got drunk, his favorite thing to do when he’s not drink-making and the one thing he wishes would disappear from drink lists forever. —Chloe Frechette
What do want to be when you grow up?
Navy Pilot, like Dad, but I was claustrophobic. Then a geologist. I spent all my time in sand lots that were once the bottom of a cretaceous ocean searching for fossils. Then I moved to New York City and walked into a bar.
Best thing you ever drank:
A whole bottle of Sauza Conmemorativo in 1978, in the tall brown bottle, over the course of a long night of eating and smoking (pot) and falling in love. No sleep, no hangover—I felt like a god in the morning. But I never saw the woman again and I felt like a lost dog for the next couple months.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Vietnamese whiskey with a whole gecko inside.
First time you ever got drunk:
The week of Semana Santa (holy week) in Jerez, Spain, 1964, on Bacardi Cuba Libras. I was 16 and they were so easy to drink, but it was so hard to forget.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The 1992 Bob Dylan live tribute album with everyone singing Dylan tunes.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Competitive cork dropping: dropping a wine cork from six inches off a table and standing it on end multiple times in a row without missing.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
I can’t remember.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Stuffing a bourbon bottle with mint to make it more minty for juleps. It ruined a perfectly good bottle of bourbon.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Planning what I’m going to be eating and drinking next while betting on thoroughbred horses.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
A glass of red wine with a shot of Scotch poured into it.
Your favorite bar:
Swift in New York City. Everyone seems to wander in eventually for a pint. Danny McDonald runs the place like a clock and [he] will occasionally show up and buy a round of Midleton Very Rare.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
My grandmother’s homemade ravioli and meatballs. We helped cut the edges of the ravioli with that funny crooked wheel and then laid them out on a sheet on her bed to dry.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Beefeater not-too-dry Martini, up with an olive and a twist.
Miller High Life and shots of Old Grand-Dad
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Don’t stop drinking.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The last text message you sent:
Damn! Looks like this tropical storm Jose may change course and come on shore in SC Thursday or Friday as a cat.1 Hurricane.