I was standing in a corridor at the W Hotel Seattle waiting to register for BarSmarts when I first spotted him. The man is pretty much impossible to miss. His steely white hair, his Martin Scorcese-esque glasses, his infectious smile. I was immediately brought back to December of this past year, a cold afternoon spent reflecting on the work I’d done in 2014 and setting my sites for the year ahead. I distinctly recall telling my husband that my bucket list interview would be Dale DeGroff, never dreaming that a mere 3 months later I’d be sitting across from King Cocktail at a lobby bar in Seattle discussing his first sip of alcohol.
In short, Dale DeGroff is the father of the modern craft cocktail movement. He reinvented bartending as a profession. He honed his craft tending bar at some of America’s most notable establishments including The Hotel Bel-Air, Charlie O’s and The Rainbow Room. He is a James Beard Award Winner, a saloon singer, a storyteller. He is a mentor, a teacher, an author. He is the founder and president of the Museum Of The American Cocktail.
DeGroff, in partnership with leading cocktail and spirit authorities Doug Frost, Steven Olson, F. Paul Pacult, Andy Seymour and David Wondrich, helped to found BAR- Beverage Alcohol Resource- a leading industry educational program. I was lucky enough sit in on the most recent course in Seattle and observe legends of the bartending industry share their unfathomable wealth of knowledge with a room full of over 100 bartenders. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dale at the end of the day and listen to one of the world’s most skilled storytellers talk about bartending, mentorship and his legacy.
What was your first sip of alcohol?
I was living in Spain and I was a teenager. I went to Jerez, one of the towns on the Sherry triangle, with a friend of mine and we had rum and Coke. It was early on so it would have been Bacardi from Havana. This was when Franco was still in power and Kennedy was president. I was born in ‘48 so it would have been in ‘64 or ‘65. We drank rum and cokes until we got really silly and sick.
Do you have a fondest memory from your days behind the bar?
Well, you know, I’ve been so lucky. I’ve had such great jobs. I worked at this great place called Charlie O’s in New York City in Rockefeller Centre. It had a great crowd. Very unusual, eclectic, exciting. And then I lucked into a job in Los Angeles right off the bat into this beautiful hotel. I love hotel bars because the crowds are various and interesting. That happened to be in the middle of Bel-Air so it was also a neighbourhood bar for some very interesting people. Sly Stallone lived next door and Harry Nillson across the street and Red Buttons up the hill. And they all came to the bar.
Then I lucked into another great gig at The Rainbow Room in New York City. What an awesome place that was. I’ve been lucky in all those places and they’ve all been equally incredible. I told you some stories today of unusual things that happened and there are lots and lots of those. They’re just great stories. They happened. They were fun and I tell them and we dine out on them.
For example, when the piano player Bud [from the hotel Bel-Air] died, that was pretty much my cue to leave that job because he was the room. By then I was night bartender and the room had changed. That night I was with Harry Nillson (who was a regular customer of mine and became a friend) and his wife Una and my wife Jill and the hotel steward at the time- a guy named Paul Comardo. Actually Paul had left the job but came back because he was good friends with Bud. Harry and I were pallbearers. There was a party thrown in the hotel by Bud’s other friend who lived there. When that party was over, everybody gravitated towards the bar where Bud had played and of course the piano had flowers on it. It got very busy very quickly. Paul was wall-eyed and he tried to pour champagne but he poured it all over the table. So we were immediately out of champagne.
There was a phone on the table and there was no chance of getting a waiter. They were so buried because everyone came all at once. Harry got on the phone and he called London. We’re listening to Harry’s end of the conversation and all we hear is “You tell him it’s ok, wake him up…..No, tell him it’s an emergency….Tell him it’s Harry, a friend of ours died…..Yeah, wake him up…..Hi Ringo! Listen, Harry died and we’re all here at the party. It was a very sad affair but a very fun affair. We’re sitting in the lounge now and I know you were a friend of Bud’s….. and by the way, when I hang up I want you to call back to the desk and ask for the bar and tell them to get a fucking bottle of champagne to my table.” True story. Stuff like that happens. It was fun and unusual.
What are some of the most pivotal decisions you made that guided the trajectory of your career?
Going to work for Joe Baum. He was a genius. When I went to go and work for him it changed my life. He’s the one that tasked me with doing the whole 19th century bar program and research it and figure it out. That really changed the trajectory of my life enormously. Then we lost our lease at The Rainbow Room. That was another biggy. While I was finishing my contract with the company, we also operated Windows On The World [located on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre]. I actually closed the bar the night of September 10th. When that went down, that was suddenly a major change in the trajectory of my life because I was unexpectedly without a job. It was confusing for a little bit there after having 15 years with Joe and a very ordered life suddenly thrown out into the boonies. My book also changed my life. When you get a book suddenly you become an expert. Then people will call you, hire you, approach you differently.
What is the most enticing opportunity you ever turned down?
I know it won’t sound like much but it also changed the trajectory of my life. I was offered a job at The Gotham Bookstore in New York City when I was 19 years old. And that would have changed my life dramatically. I went to work for an advertising agency instead where I met Joe Baum, the owner of Restaurant Associates, and got immersed into that whole world. It would have gone in a totally different way. The Gotham Bookstore, you may or may not know, was a famous bookstore because they had all the releases of the Norman Mailer books. All the major authors had their release parties at the Gotham so I would have been a part of that world probably had I not gone in the other direction.
What do you want your legacy to be within the cocktail community?
That I’m a doorway through which a lot of young bartenders have passed, basically. I mean, I opened a door. The door to the profession of bartending was closed. It was not a profession anymore after prohibition and I opened the door again and everybody walked through it which is lovely.
If you could have a conversation with your 20 year old self, knowing what you know now, what kind of advice would you give?
I don’t think I would have changed much. I would have told myself to pay attention a little more closely to the things I was doing while I was doing them. As John Lennon once said, famously, life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. Too often, you don’t realize that so you’re looking forward when you should be looking right where you are.
Do you find that that’s hard to do in this industry because it seems that everyone is curious about what’s going to be the next big thing?
All of us who have been in the industry for a long time, chefs and bartenders alike- people call us on a regular basis. We’re always happy to get those trend phone calls because we just basically promote what we’re doing and that becomes the trend. It’s an opportunity to promote one’s self which is not cynical at all. It is what it is. When I was working on Pom Wonderful, I started spreading the world that pomegranate was the next big ingredient and it became the next big ingredient.
What is the one non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?
Up In The Old Hotel by Joe Mitchell. It’s a collection of Joe’s writings and he was credited by a lot of writers as really having some of the most perfectly crafted prose and also having an astonishingly good ear for dialogue and different vernacular. His prose were like gems- perfectly cut and without any waste.
If your best night behind the bar had a theme song, what would it be?
I guess Sunny Side of the Street. Do you know it? [and then he breaks into song] “Grab your coat and get your hat…..Leave your worries on the doorstep, momma….Life can be so sweet, on the sunny side of the street….” I sing a lot. I’m a saloon-singer and I do sing a lot in saloons or wherever I get a chance.
So I know you’re still behind the bar in a lot of different capacities but what was the most difficult part of moving out from behind the bar in a more traditional sense?
Jokes! The jokes dried up. I got lots of jokes behind the bar. Everybody had a joke for me and I had a joke for them. I miss that back and forth and stories. I can’t impress with more emphasis, certainly than I did today in the class, about how important that sort of oral history is. Because of social media and people focusing in on their machines, people are missing a lot of the opportunities to enjoy stories and listen to storytellers that are really good storytellers. I practiced and listened to some really good storytellers and I learned how to tell a compelling story. Funny, compelling, poignant, whatever. And that came from practice and listening. There doesn’t seem to be time for that kind of listening or that back and forth as much anymore as there had been. We’re talking to one another but not in person that often and not listening as much. I’m sure it will work out but I miss that sort of sitting around for hours and telling stories.
What has been the most rewarding part of stepping out from behind the bar and more into a teaching and mentorship role?
Travel! I’ve been travelling like crazy. Obviously you stand in one place when you’re a bartender. I did that for years. I’ve been on the road now and I’m kind of liking it. I’m getting around a lot. Been to Vancouver a couple of times already.