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“The Godfathers” at Tales of the Cocktail: Part Two

"The Godfathers" at Tales of the Cocktail

The Godfathers was an exceptional panel at the 2014 Tales of the Cocktail, featuring three cocktail legends: Brother CleveDale DeGroff, and Paul Harrington. The 90-minute session was led by Angus Winchester, the Vice President of Education and Training at Barmetrix.

[Continued from The Godfathers Part One]

UNIVERSITY OF BARTENDING
Winchester compared today’s focus on cocktail specialization to a university – the History department, Geography, Science, Art and so on. He asked the godfathers, “If you were entering the University of Bartending, which department would you find yourselves in?”

“I would be in the Hospitality department,” said Harrington. “There’s some incredible historians out there, an incredible amount of detail. But to me, and my experience in bars even now, even with my knowledge [and] even though I’m not staying current with stuff, it’s hard for me to relax in a bar sometimes. It is about the hospitality and the service. We’re the 1%, we’re the ones that are really the cocktail geeks. The other 99%, that buy these products, these people want to relax, they want some conversation, they want a relationship with a bartender. As a ‘student’ I may not know that, but that’s what I would like to teach.”

DeGroff said, “I used to think it was the technique. But now everybody’s so good at this stuff, so it’s not that part, because everybody’s got it and they’re better than me.”

“I think probably the hospitality, but in another way, to have bartenders look at it from the perspective of being oral historians in a sense,” DeGroff continued. “Bartenders know a lot about everything, they’ve had a couple years of college, they have a lot of knowledge about this and that. If they’re good ones, they tend to be somewhat empathetic, and they have all those great qualities. I think to go in that direction and collect stories, you’re interfacing with lots of really difficult, interesting, wild, crazy people over a period of years, and so that’s a collection. And it really affects you and teaches you, and it also gives you the ability to pass that accumulated knowledge on in an interesting, funny and entertaining way over the bar.”

MEAN BARTENDERS
Winchester brought up the subject of “mean bartenders.” DeGroff said, “You know what that was, in my opinion? Lack of knowledge. They were really embarrassed because they didn’t have the knowledge. As things started to become more crafty, some of them were getting left behind. People who were confronted with situations that they couldn’t handle would simply blow people off, because that’s the only way they could deal, they didn’t have the confidence. Confidence is what I think makes you able to be a good host.” Regarding some modern bartenders and their expansive cocktail knowledge, DeGroff added, “It’s not so much that they know it, it’s that they want you to know that they know it. Too often, too much.”

Cleve said, “I remember we were playing in Philadelphia, and The Millionaire and I went up to the bar and ordered a couple of Negronis. And the bartender said [in a gruff voice], ‘Why can’t you guys just drink beer like everybody else?’ Because we DON’T, how’s that sound? Fortunately I think that era has passed. But the mean bartender thing was a work of art back then.”

Dale DeGroff at Juniperlooza

Dale DeGroff at Juniperlooza, Tales of the Cocktail 2013

PHYSICAL CONFIDENCE
Continuing the university theme, Winchester asked DeGroff about his recommendation to take jazz dance, in order to gain physical confidence behind the bar. “Acting was good – I took dance, I took jazz, I took ballet. I’m not saying having that physical presence behind the bar, having that confidence… I don’t mean that Joe Namath would make the best bartender necessarily, because you need to have other stuff too. But having the confidence that you are in control of your body, when you shake and stir, when you approach the bar, the economy of movement.”

DeGroff continued, “I had a great bartender who told me that you never approach the bar without making three things happen: you don’t take an order without cleaning an ashtray; you don’t ever go anywhere in that bar without completing a job; and all while you’re carrying on a conversation here, here, and over there [points]. That physical confidence is really important.”

SECRETS TO SUCCESS
The godfathers were not only pioneers of the modern craft cocktail movement, their respective careers have spanned decades and they continue to play active, important roles in the industry. Winchester asked the panelists to share their secrets to success – how did they “get through it relatively unscathed and have normal lives?”

“Consistency is key,” said Cleve. “You know, Bela Lugosi, who played Dracula, was a heroin addict for 45 years. And he quit, and he dropped dead.” As the audience erupted in laughter, Cleve added, “No, no, don’t become a heroin addict. It’s a dumb thing to do. It really is, because it interferes with your drinking.”

“I had the good luck of 32 years ago marrying an extraordinary woman,” said DeGroff to hearty applause. “Every once in a while I got an attitude adjustment from her and focused. I also got a little focus from my doctor about ten years ago. We did my physical, and he said, ‘You could probably drink the way you’re drinking now and you could hit maybe 70, 75.” (DeGroff was 55 at the time.) “BUT. If you were to stop for a while, and let your liver recover – and it will – you might make it to 85 or 90. What would you do?’ [laughter]

So DeGroff quit drinking. “I would say to the bartenders, don’t be embarrassed if I spit. The only drink I would order and drink a little bit of was the Champagne Cocktail, so I became the Champagne Cocktail King. I didn’t drink for about four or five years, and it actually worked! So you know, there’s ways of doing this. Now I don’t drink anywhere near as much. As you notice, I don’t go out late at night anymore.”

Harrington was a bartender and then became an architect. “So there’s the health issue, there’s also the career issue. I have teenage girls, and I try to tell them, choose something you’ll be happy at doing. Make sure, whatever you choose to do to make money, regardless of the amount of money, that you’re happy doing that, that’s going to give you longevity.”

Returning to the health issue, Harrington observed, “Up till you’re 40 you’re pretty invincible. And then you feel it, and your parents are aging. When you get older, you realize you might want to live longer.” [laughter]

“You need something outside of this industry, outside this business, that keeps you going,” said Harrington. “Living in the Bay Area, it was great. Everyone that worked in restaurants and bars had something else that they truly loved doing, that just fueled what they were passionate about. Moving to Spokane, people didn’t understand. They called me a Renaissance man. That’s what keeps me going. I’m not ADD, but I enjoy many different things. It’s great to throw your heart and soul into the cocktails, the cocktail history, all that. But you have to have something else, whether it’s for your mind, your body or whatever.”

Harrington added, “My dream retirement job is to move into the [French] Quarter and be a bartender. When my kids are gone, I hope my wife is ready to pack it up and move into a small place. Or, in Spokane there’s a little house two doors down from Clover, I can see living there till I die and being a bartender.”

DRINKING BEHIND THE BAR
Winchester referenced a Facebook debate, in which a “potential modern godfather” said it was “creepy” if a bartender didn’t drink behind the bar or wouldn’t drink with guests when they offered to buy one for the bartender. How did the panelists feel about bartenders drinking behind the bar?

“Everything is based on timing,” said Cleve. “To have a drink with a guest who is one of your regulars, or someone that you want to treat very nicely, to share that drink with them, is fine. But don’t have 10.”

“At the Rainbow Room, we had these beautiful gabardine jackets, and we were dressed in ties,” said DeGroff. “We were working at a place [where] it just felt absolutely wrong to drink. I mean, it was just wrong. It didn’t feel good, I didn’t want to do it.”

DeGroff continued, “If you own the bar, or if it’s your regular neighborhood bar, or [you work] in a neighborhood bar, the rules are a little bit different, let’s face it. You’re gonna have a shot of Irish whiskey, come on. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. What does your boss think about it? Have you squared that part of it? Cool, so you still have a job.”

Quoting Joe Baum’s famous line, DeGroff said, “‘I want my service to be friendly, but not familiar.’ And for a very fancy place, that makes sense. They’re paying a lot of money, and you know, some really wealthy people can be really strange. [laughs] And you have to be careful and just be really formal and straight ahead with them, because that’s the kind of thing that protects you if things happen. You have to have that kind of reserve sometimes. I don’t care if you’re working at a neighborhood bar or a fancy place like the Rainbow Room, when people walk in, you change your demeanor according to how the energy is coming at you. Absolutely.”

Harrington offered his perspective as the proprietor of Clover. “My bar… it’s a fairly formal bar community, it’s a high end bar community. I wish it was more familiar. So my policy… I’m a horrible owner that way. [laughter] I’m always breaking the rules, let’s put it that way.”

Harrington continued, “When I was a bartender, I set a policy that it was Johnnie Walker Red Label, if someone wanted to buy me a drink, that’s what it was. I either saved it for after the shift, or [had it] with the patron depending on the situation. If it helps the customer’s experience, then I think it’s worth it. In nightclubs it’s a different situation. Building a team, when you’re four deep at the bar, nothing’s better when the barback makes a round of shots and puts them in coffee cups and everyone takes a drink. That’s what gets you through the night.”

Brother Cleve’s El Splendido
The next cocktail was Brother Cleve’s El Splendido. “This drink is now 20 years old,” said Cleve. “It was in May of 1994, we were on our first U.S. tour with the band, Combustible Edison. It was an uphill battle in those days to be able to get a cocktail outside of the ones we would make in our van or our dressing room.”

The band was in Austin, killing time after doing soundcheck at a club called The Most. To their dismay, they realized the booze was in their van, which was back at their hotel, eight miles away. “The Millionaire and I were sitting at the bar and he said, let’s try to make up a cocktail. And in all honesty, there was a bottle of Tanqueray there. We said OK, let’s start with that. Let’s see, what else? ’cause they had nothing. They had no shakers, we just made these in our glasses with service ice. Chambord, OK let’s put that in there. We took lime wedges out of the tray and started squeezing lime juice into them. Hey, this actually isn’t too bad. The Millionaire said, ‘Yes, it’s splendid.’ [laughter] We were in Texas, so we said, it’s the El Splendido.”

A couple of years later in Boston, Cleve was doing a DJ night - Misty Kalkofen was the bartender – and he put the El Splendido on the menu. It did really well, and Cleve subsequently featured it on the menu of the B-Side Lounge when it opened in 1998. “We sold a lot of them through the late 90s, early 2000s. It is what it is, it’s something that we improvised.”

THE COCKTAIL NATION
Winchester asked Cleve to talk about the Cocktail Nation. “Ted Haigh, who’s an old friend of ours, said the spread of the cocktail was really helped by the music, the bands and this whole cocktail and lounge music thing that happened in the early and mid-90s. We were at the forefront of that. We were on Sub Pop, we had a drink called the Combustible Edison that was on the album cover. It was brandy, Campari and lemon juice, and it’s in [Paul's] book. We got a Campari sponsorship at that time. I’d been in a band with a Miller beer sponsorship in the 80s, so I thought this was a step in the right direction for me.”

“We called our fans the Cocktail Nation, and it started very slowly,” said Cleve. “We went on our first tour and we thought, are we gonna get killed? Our booking agent also booked Nirvana and Sonic Youth, bands like that. We were playing in rock clubs, real dumps, and here we were in our matching outfits, xylophone and Miss Lily Banquette, our lead singer.”

“It started out, the first couple of shows… there was one song, people would always take their clothes off. You know what, I think we’re onto something here.” [laughter] “There were one or two people, maybe a half dozen depending on the town, that would show up in their fabulous thrift store outfits and be drinking cocktails and got it. And there were the two or three guys in torn jeans and a suitcoat, and they would have a cocktail. And then everybody else was sitting there with a beer, ‘I don’t know what is wrong with those people.’”

“By the time we got to the West Coast – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, it was like, ‘Oh, we’re onto something here.’ People totally embraced us out there, especially Hollywood. We ended up working with Quentin Tarantino and scoring the movie Four Rooms, and did a lot of music for television and advertising, stuff like that. It just kind of worked out very interestingly that way.”

“We played at tiki bars… there was a short-lived club in Los Angeles called Fuzzyland that we played at, that was an old bowling alley. They had giant tiki things everywhere, it was a fabulous event.”

There was a watershed moment for the movement in November 1995, when Combustible Edison headlined Exoticon ’95, a tiki and lounge cultural event that took place at the historic Park Plaza Hotel in L.A. Exoticon was produced by a team that included Otto von Stroheim, who founded the Tiki News zine and produces the annual Tiki Oasis in San Diego with his wife, Baby Doe von Stroheim. Exoticon also featured cocktails by Beachbum Berry and performances by the Phantom Surfers, Joey Altruda Sextet, Korla Pandit, Joey Sehee and others. “It was an insane event, there were a couple thousand people.”

Cleve recalled how the Combustible Edison was served at Cafe Montmartre in Madison, where Jim Meehan would later bartend while attending the University of Wisconsin. “It was done with flaming brandy, which was illegal in many states, but not Wisconsin. And the bar was actually on fire a couple of times because they were pouring them along.”

SHOW ME THE MONEY!
Winchester wondered if Harrington, as an owner, is inundated with people wanting him to stock various products. “I have a small bar, we only have 85 brands, so our shelf space is in high demand. I was always interested in products, but it had to have a purpose, there had to be an actual application where it improved the situation. If it doesn’t have that, I don’t care how hip they are, how cool they are, where they’re shipping you, where they’re sending you. [laughs] It’s got to improve the drink or the experience.”

“I believe in the long tail market, especially in the drinks business,” said DeGroff. “If you have a company and you handle enough of these niche products, there will be a home for them. Has anybody ever told us there’s gonna be a limit on how many ingredients we can use in food? And let the market just sort it out, if stuff is lousy it’s not gonna last.”

DeGroff continued, “There’s somebody here now selling something that has no category, and that’s happening more and more now. We’re finding spirits that don’t fit into categories, and what do you do with those? And that to me is the ultimate challenge, to place these interesting category-less products.”

Now that there’s so much money, how do the godfathers see the difference? Cleve answered, “Kinda like being a politician, right? There’s always a backdoor deal that could happen. Bartenders now are the ones [that] new brands, craft brands etc. come and talk to all of us, because they need us to make drinks to get them into the public’s hands, throats and everything else.”

Regarding the plethora of craft spirits, Cleve said, “For instance in New York, there’s a store on Long Island that only sells products that are made in the state of New York – spirits, beers and wines. I was in there last summer, and I noticed in the spirits category, there was only one product that was under $50 a bottle. You could taste the spirits at this particular spot, but usually you can’t do that, so how do you get people to try these different products? Obviously, that’s what we do. Can that go in certain ways, if you’re getting paid to promote something, and you’re a bartender? There are some ethical issues, but at the end of the day if you truly believe that it’s a great spirit, I don’t see any problem with promoting it.”

LOVE / “LOVE LESS”
Winchester asked the panelists to name one thing they love about the industry at the moment, and one thing they “love less” (“hate” is such a strong word). Harrington said, “Facebook, I love. For this bartending community, this unique group of people, Facebook is the perfect venue. Someone should make a bar book – or whatever you want to call it – for just us. It does help spread the word. It is a sense of community. A lot of people probably think you’re out on an island in whatever little town, or even a big city, you probably feel that. I do love that aspect of it.”

Something Harrington loves less: “The constant change, but maybe that’s just me being a grumpy old man. I think some of these changes are good from a regional aspect, and in a large market you could specialize in anything. I think there’s a bakery in New York that just does macarons. We can’t do that in many cities. But in a big city market that’s going to work. Same thing with spirits, you could specialize in just a spirit, or a locally made spirit. But for me in a small market, I find it very frustrating. To convert someone to a believer in a small product, whether it’s for a small business or a $50 bottle that’s gonna sit on a shelf that no one likes, it is an investment as a business owner.”

DeGroff said, “There’s so much to love, the education that’s possible for bartenders today is just astounding. The fact that they can move from country to country, from place to place, and really build a career that way. The Internet has made it possible for all of us to travel and work and talk to each other across the world, which is incredible.”

As for what he loves less, DeGroff shook his head. “All of us are so anxious to raise the bar, and talk about that. But outside of your own home, what’s the point of pouring booze down people’s necks? None of those luges, what is that?” [loud applause]

The applause was even louder when Cleve said, “I love the fact that I can get a good drink anywhere in the world now, and you couldn’t do that 20 years ago.”

Nods and murmurs of approval followed Cleve’s “loves less”: “Sometimes I look at bar menus, and I think you know what, you’re just being too goddamn clever. Pat yourself on the back, ‘look what I just did.’ Come on, less is more sometimes. Except in tiki drinks!”

Paul Harrington with Dry Fly Distillery at Tales of the Cocktail

Paul Harrington at Meet the Craft Distillers, Tales of the Cocktail 2012

Q&A
The panel concluded with a Q&A session. The first question was about creating drinks – the bartender mentioned cocktail archetypes like the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and sours – now she’s run into a “fear of not being able to create something new. Everything is just a twist. How do you get outside of everything that’s already been done?”

Paul: “To me, a twist on a classic is totally acceptable, as long as it fits the situation. I wouldn’t be pushing for the archetype. If you happen to invent the next vodka luge, hats off to you. That wouldn’t be my focus, personally.

Dale: “Don’t angst over it. If you’re learning and finding new ingredients, that will lead you. Let your curiosity bring you forward. Creativity will take care of itself.”

The godfathers were asked about their role in supporting local craft ingredients and spirits.

Cleve: “If they’re good, bring ‘em on.”

Paul: “It has to do somewhat with your business model. Dry Fly Distillery is 800 yards from my front door at the bar. I came down here two years ago as their brand ambassador. Some of their products I love, some of them I wouldn’t use. If it has an application the better to drink, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t force the issue. I did take a local brewery and use just their beers, so I do support local. Well, why don’t you support this brewery or that brewery? Because I don’t want you standing at a table taking three minutes to explain the history of each of these breweries before you take the order and move on.”

Harrington mentioned a recent anonymous Craigslist post that complained that today’s tech-savvy diners are adversely affecting the restaurant experience. “Nowadays, with people’s smartphones and people taking pictures, table turn times have doubled. It effectively cuts your income in half. As a business owner, that’s a big deal. Pick what you do and do it right, and you’ll be fine.”

Were there any pitfalls, any mistakes the godfathers have learned from, personal qualities that got them where they are?

Cleve: “What Dale said earlier, you gotta like people. This is a hospitality business, and it is show business, you’re on a stage. Dale was an actor, I’m a musician, Paul an architect, bartender and writer. You have to realize you have to be able to interact well with people and you work long, long hours. People don’t know that. They don’t know that you’re in there at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, carrying buckets of ice up three flights of stairs and you’re in there till three or four o’clock in the morning cleaning up.”

Dale: “I think when you’re younger, just leave yourself alone and screw around for a while. I didn’t really find direction until I was in my thirties. I did a lot of different stuff, I had so many different jobs, you have no idea. Especially living in New York, where you just took jobs whatever they were, especially if you were an actor.

“Unless you’ve got that focus, and you know you want to be a doctor, you know you want to be a lawyer, and even that might change. I tell young bartenders when I was teaching – a lot more than I am now – I would say, just be the best bartender you can, I know you don’t want to be a bartender. This was early on, when nobody really wanted to be a bartender. I would quote John Lennon, who said, ‘Life is what happens while you’re making plans.’ So just do it. And do it the best you can.”

Paul: “Be open to opportunities. You never know what’s going to walk in your door. And along with liking people, you care about people.”

Question from Dave Stolte, author of Home Bar Basics: “A lot of us think of the 80s and 90s as the Dark Ages of mixology or cocktail culture. Are there any components of that time that you think should be retained or that you’d like to see come back? Anything that’s missing now that we had back then?”

Paul: “Big hair.” [laughter]

Dale: “I will honestly say that everything important I learned about being a bartender I learned in the 70s. And the other stuff came later.”

Paul: “People had fun back then, they weren’t concerned about health or anything else.” [laughter] Harrington referenced DeGroff’s interview with Paul Clarke from a couple of years ago, when DeGroff said, “Physically, there are two things you’ve gotta do before you’re 50: you’ve gotta cut out cocaine, and cut out smoking.”

DeGroff explained, “You have to understand, when we were coming up in the 60s and 70s, [drugs] were [much] less criminalized. There was no war on drugs, it wasn’t a big business yet. It wasn’t like it is now. I think a lot of the horror of drugs has actually been created by the war on drugs. The attention, and the money keeps getting bigger and bigger. And as long as the money is getting bigger it’s going to get more and more horrifying. Just legalize the whole bunch!” [loud applause]

The Q&A ended with an interesting question about the legal implications that are put on bartenders today. What are their responsibilities?

Paul: “In all aspects of life you take responsibility for your actions. In Idaho it’s actually the bar’s fault, not the bartender’s fault, if you want to go there. When I started writing it was also about responsible consumption. Cocktails for me are about a transition in a time in the day, or mood, or week or whatever, it’s not meant to be, put your foot on the gas and go all the way. This is a great blowout weekend here at Tales, but hopefully people don’t live like this.” [laughter]

Dale: “It’s really the hardest thing we do as bartenders. If you live in a city like New York, it’s a little easier, but you know, you just have to buckle down and say, ‘You’re not getting another drink. That’s it. I love ya, but you’re not getting another.’ You gotta have the guts to do that, with your friends, with anybody. It’s the hardest thing we do. There’s no doubt about it.”

Header image credits: Brother Cleve (Facebook), King Cocktail, Rick Singer Photography (Tales of the Cocktail)

 

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“The Godfathers” at Tales of the Cocktail: Part One

"The Godfathers" at Tales of the Cocktail

The following is the description for The Godfathers, one of the best seminars presented at Tales of the Cocktail this or any year:

A Godfather is defined as a man who is influential or pioneering in a movement or organization. Whilst there are many potential Godfathers and Godmothers in the making now, there are perhaps just four who stand out from the dawn of the Second Golden Age of the Bartender in the USA. Join three of them: Brother Cleve, King Cocktail and The Alchemist as they talk trials and tribulations, sources and inspirations, lessons and learnings from the past and their thoughts for the future. Moderated, curated and wrangled by Angus Winchester.

The Godfathers featured three cocktail legends on the same panel: Brother Cleve, Dale DeGroff, and Paul Harrington. The 90-minute session was led by Angus Winchester, the Vice President of Education and Training at Barmetrix.

In his opening remarks, Winchester said, “I think of them as godfathers to me, all three are hugely significant and important in my career as well.” Winchester noted that these are the American godfathers – were he to expand the scope of the panel to internationals, he would include Dick Bradsell from the UK, Charles Schumann of Munich (“perhaps alongside Dale the only person who actually looks like a godfather”), and the Maestro, Salvatore Calabrese. If he had a bigger panel, Winchester said he would have added Murray Stenson to the American godfathers. “These three guys did it back in the day. They were either sources of inspiration or information, or just great places to get drinks, and really did what a lot of us aspire to do nowadays.”

Paul Harrington at Clover

Paul Harrington | Photo by Rick Singer Photography, via Tales of the Cocktail

PAUL HARRINGTON
Winchester told the audience that he started bartending in New York in 1993. During his downtime, he used “this Internet thing” and during his research, “I stumbled across this incredible website called CocktailTime.com. This was really important, because it was the first time I’d actually seen that cocktail recipes weren’t just recipes, they had stories behind them, they had histories. And the drinks [Paul Harrington] was choosing were drinks like the Aviation, the Monkey Gland, the Pegu Club, the Red Snapper. And this was such an incredible source of information for me, to give me something to talk to guests about. Remember, back in those days, people weren’t overly impressed by the wonderful cocktails you made, it was how heavy your pour was and whether you could remember their name, things like that.” Cocktail Time is now archived at The Chanticleer Society.

Harrington’s online persona, “The Alchemist,” was incredibly influential for many other bartenders as well. “This was really a virtual godfather,” said Winchester. “Jacob Briars popped in earlier and he had to come up and shake Paul’s hand, because he said, ‘I’m sitting in New Zealand, I found this website and it really was this link to realizing there were other people around the world who cared about drinks and not just the effect of drinks.’”

Harrington is the author of the seminal 1998 book, Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, “which is out of print and as far as I’m aware will stay out of print for some time,” said Winchester. After working as an architect at OMS Architecture Interiors and South Henry Studios, Harrington returned to the cocktail world when he opened Clover in Spokane, Washington in May 2012.

Brother Cleve

Brother Cleve | Photo via Facebook

BROTHER CLEVE
Brother Cleve is a Boston-based DJ and record producer, and was previously the keyboard player for The Del Fuegos and then Combustible Edison. As the bar manager of the famed B-Side Lounge, Cleve would become the progenitor of the next generation of Boston influencers, which includes Jackson Cannon, John Gertsen and Misty Kalkofen. Winchester said he first met Cleve when he competed in Boston – the only cocktail competition he’s ever entered. He found out they had a common interest in music, what was then known as Space Age Bachelor Pad, Loungecore and the Cocktail Nation. “I didn’t realize how lucky I was, because by meeting Cleve up in Boston I was immediately sort of grandfathered in; I was a legacy now at every single bar I went to.”

Dale DeGroff

Dale DeGroff | Photo via King Cocktail

DALE DEGROFF
Of course, you can’t have a seminar about American bartending godfathers without King Cocktail, “the Da Vinci of Drinks, the Yoda of Mixology,” Dale DeGroff. His extraordinary influence on the bar world spans three decades, including a stint at the legendary Rainbow Room in the 1980s, where he pioneered a gourmet approach to the resurrection of long lost classic cocktails.

Among his many accomplishments, DeGroff is the James Beard Award-winning author of The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail, and is also a founding partner of Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) and founding president of the Museum of the American Cocktail. He recently launched his own brand of Pimento Aromatic Bitters.

After admitting he’s previously described DeGroff as “the bastard child of Tony Bennett and Martin Scorsese,” Winchester said he spent his 26th birthday at the Rainbow Room, and recalled sipping a Sazerac that DeGroff made for him, “as we were sitting at the Rainbow Room, totally alone with that incredible view.” When he interviewed DeGroff for CLASS Magazine, Winchester saw his “wonderful library of books, which again made me realize there were other great books out there that I could buy, beg, borrow and steal.”

Paul Harrington’s Jasmine
The welcome cocktail was the Jasmine, a modern classic created by Harrington when he was at the Townhouse Bar & Grill in Emeryville, California. (Recipe below.) On a “warm summer night” his friend, Matt Jasmine, stopped by the Townhouse after his shift at Chez Panisse. Jasmine said to Harrington, “Make me something new.” Harrington riffed on the classic Pegu Club, using lemon instead of lime, and subbing Campari for Angostura bitters. His friend took a sip and said, “Congratulations, you’ve just invented grapefruit juice.” [laughter]

EARLY STIRRINGS
The panel began in earnest when Winchester asked the godfathers how they got their start. Harrington said he was two years into college and “sort of going down the wrong path.” He moved back home for a year, and in the summer of 1988 – after turning 21 – worked one bar shift at a nightclub, Charlie’s Bar & Grill in Bellevue, Washington. Only one patron came in that day, and he ordered a Manhattan. “I don’t even know how I knew what a Manhattan was, but I made him a Manhattan.” The guest said it was great, and Harrington thought, “Wow, I guess I must be a bartender.” [laughs]

About two weeks later, Harrington moved back to San Francisco and eventually became bar manager at Houlihan’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. During his tenure, he trained Tom Southwell, who was one of the original bartenders at TGI Fridays. “He’s the one that taught me there’s a respectful way to make drinks. Regardless of how ridiculous the drink was, you follow the recipe for cost reasons, portion reasons, it tastes better when you use the recipe. He taught me to respect the bar and respect making drinks.”

Cleve began his bartender origin story by saying his grandmother gave him a Manhattan when he was eight. (Winchester quickly encouraged Cleve to move on.) Fast forward to the 1970s, when Cleve was a young punk rocker and frequently played at a Boston club called the Rathskeller (aka “the Rat”), where he would always drink Manhattans. In 1985, Cleve joined The Del Fuegos. The band was in Cleveland on the third day of their first U.S. tour, and they went to a place called Shorty’s Diner. The back cover of the menu said, “try a refreshing cocktail,” and it had a hundred drinks on the list. “Wait a minute, there’s only 20 cocktails, right? What the hell are all these other things? What the fuck is a Sidecar?”

Cleve went into a bookstore and bought an old Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide. “I got fascinated by all these old drinks, and I was trying to find a lot of these spirits. What the hell is Creme Yvette, and where do you find these things? A lot of these spirits weren’t available, nobody knew how to make these drinks, but I was fascinated by it.”

Three years later, after the band broke up, one of Cleve’s friends was opening a bar in Boston. “’Want to be a bartender?’ Yeah, OK. Sounds good. The first day at the bar, I looked at the sign. ‘Today’s special: Sidecar.’ My first customer said, ‘What the fuck is a Sidecar?’” [laughter]

DeGroff’s bartender journey began at age 13, when he saw West Side Story in Indianapolis. “I really wanted to be a Jet. I wanted to wear a thin black tie and a purple shirt, and I wanted to live in New York City. That was my dream. I didn’t have any more ambition than to get to New York City one way or the other. Upon arriving in New York, it took about 13 seconds to figure out the only place you wanted to be was in a bar. [It's] the most interesting place, the most comfortable place, since my apartment was about as big as this table.”

His roommate’s older brother was the “top dog” in an advertising agency, and he got them jobs in the mail room. “What he was, actually, was an Olympic drinker,” said DeGroff. “He had the account, Restaurant Associates, which was the supreme account that every advertising agency in New York wanted. These were the original Mad Men guys. They missed the whole humor on the TV show. These were the funniest men I’ve ever met in my life, they could all be stand up comedians. The best jokes in the world start in advertising agencies and went around the world.”

“They taught me how to order stuff, what to order when and why, very early on. (You could drink at 18 when I arrived in New York, I was 19.)”

DeGroff’s ultimate goal was to become an actor. “I got out to Los Angeles, still harboring the dream to be a movie star. I was working at the beautiful Hotel Bel-Air. God knows how I got this job, I didn’t have a clue. But I realized when I got there that I really had to focus. So I started tasting everything behind the bar, I hadn’t seen any of those products before.”

DeGroff eventually became friends with the hotel’s piano player, Bud Herman, who had played with Benny Goodman. Herman told him, “‘Dale, I know you’re really into this acting thing. But you got a knack for bartending.’ When both my sons were born, I realized that ‘knack’ really better pay off, [because] show business wasn’t. [laughter] “And I went back to New York City. But I’ve had the good fortune of always having a good job. It was just so serendipitous, I walked into incredibly beautiful locations where I learned a lot while I was there. And the second phase of that was to go work for Joe Baum, and that just changed my career.” [applause]

THE AHA MOMENT
The panelists were asked to share their “aha moments,” when suddenly everything seemed to make sense, they could make money and have a career with bartending. Harrington said there were a couple of aha moments. One was being introduced to DeGroff through mutual friends, when Harrington was bartending at the Townhouse Bar & Grill. Harrington had read about DeGroff in trade magazines, and he even made a pilgrimage to the Rainbow Room on Thanksgiving weekend – DeGroff wasn’t there that night. “[Dale] had some college friends that owned a restaurant around the corner from my bar. They would close down their restaurant and come over and have a drink.” One night, one of them told Harrington, “‘My friend from New York would love this bar. He’d love what you do here.’ Who’s your friend? ‘Dale DeGroff.’ Wow, you know Dale DeGroff? We didn’t have Facebook, this was real networking.”

That fall, DeGroff came into the Townhouse and sat at the bar. “I had to go back in the cooler because I was shaking. I think he asked me what I was working on, I didn’t have much to say. I made him a Martini.” DeGroff and his friends went drinking in San Francisco. Later that night, as Harrington was closing down, DeGroff came back to the Townhouse and told Harrington, “‘You know, that Martini was the best drink I had tonight.’ I took that to heart.” (DeGroff added with a smile, “Just for the San Francisco bartenders, this was 1992, guys.”)

Another aha moment for Harrington was meeting Charles Schumann in Munich. “So there were a couple of events like that in my life, where bartending was not a career then, but it sat well with me, it’s like, ‘I’m supposed to be doing this.’ I’m in this network of people. There’s a bigger reason.”

DeGroff said, “I got a waiting job at Charley O’s, which was a Joe Baum invention, one of his most successful bars. It was in Rockefeller Center, it was just a lively, raucous New York bar and grill – classy and divey at the same time, it was just such a great place. You never knew who was going to walk in – they used to have the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast there, with the mayor, the bishop and everybody.”

In 1975, Charley O’s was sold to Peter Aschkenasy. Charley O’s had the contract to do all the parties at the mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion. The two bartenders that taught DeGroff had no interest in this, what with all that loading and unloading. “The money they made behind the bar was so good, and they were union and didn’t have to take this job.” DeGroff jumped at the chance. “So off I went as a waiter. Rupert Murdoch was being given the keys to the city. I tended bar, and I felt better and better as the evening went on. This stuff is easy! I felt really good back there, this is what I want to do. And I go back, and I ended up getting the service bar job.”

“Flash forward many years, and I’m in SoHo, in a duplex apartment owned by Rupert Murdoch,” DeGroff continued. “Working his birthday party. He walked up and said, ‘You’re the hot shit cocktail guy.’ [laughter] And I said, ‘Actually Mr. Murdoch, our fortunes rose together in this city.’ So my aha moment was that day at Gracie Mansion.”

Cleve said, “I’ve always liked bars and I’ve always liked bartenders. They made sense to me. They were great guys to hang out with, they could talk about anything, they knew a lot. So in 1988 when I got behind the bar myself for the first time – I’d been in ‘show business’ for 10 years or so at that point – I realized it was the exact same thing. You’re on stage. I realized that what I had admired in these people that had done this before me, that I unconsciously learned a lot from them. So what was the difference between doing this and playing rock and roll? I didn’t have four other guys.”

BARTENDING AS A CAREER
Winchester asked the godfathers, how did they feel about people who want to grow up and be bartenders? “It’s a legitimate industry now,” said Harrington. “When I bartended, for whatever reason I decided, ‘I’m going to do this until I’m 30.’ I worked my way through school, it was a great social life, it was like being a rock star. Now it’s a legitimate business, there’s more money and opportunities. It’s a legitimate career choice, for good or for bad.” He added, “I live in a small rural community, we spend a lot of time on country roads, and you come across a bar and you find someone there…  they don’t have any of these ingredients. You’re lucky if they have cold beer. But there’s still some great bartenders out there.”

DeGroff concurred, “It is in fact a very good place to go. And you can go in a lot of different directions. There’s mid-six figures to be made if you handle your cards right. There are a lot of corporations out there right now that need beverage professionals at the highest level, and those are guys who know more than I do. They know everything about wine, beer, sake, cocktails, and service. They know it. They’re sitting in this room… some of them are eminently employable by these very large, mid- to luxury-level chain restaurant groups, or luxury hotel groups. If that’s what you want to do, if you want to make big money, you can actually do it as a bartender. You couldn’t make that kind of money as a bartender before.”

“If you want to go the more ‘spiritual’ route as it were, there’s people like Sean Kenyon. He has a couple of bars, he loves the people he works with, he nourishes them, he trains them, he’s an incredible employer. He’s happy doing what he’s doing, he’s probably never gonna make mid-six figures… or maybe he is now,” DeGroff laughed. “Of course, the primary thing you have to ask yourself when you step into this role is, ‘Do I like people?’” Winchester added, “Everyone says, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

“OLD” IS THE NEW “NEW”
All three panelists are known for resurrecting old cocktails or championing classics, rather than crazy signatures and modern drinks. What made them so interested in these older cocktails? “There were so many of them that I had no idea [about],” said Cleve. “Like I said, I drank Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Rob Roys, Martinis, etc. In Boston, there was a group that started having cocktail parties in the 80s. It was a very punk rock thing. “My friend The Millionaire – who’s the leader of the band, Combustible Edison – said that ‘Getting into cocktails was the most punk rock thing I could ever do, because nobody did it.’ Nobody drank them. It was like going to a bowling alley or a drive-in movie theater. All those things were dying out at that time, in the 80s. There were these people that would have these cocktail parties, and dress up – kind of like I am today – and listen to easy listening records, Tiki music and Martin Denny records, and [we'd] pretend we were sophisticated even though we were a bunch of goddamn punk rockers.”

DeGroff said, “My route into classic cocktails of course was Joe Baum, who said, ‘I want a 19th century bar at the Rainbow Room.’ That was all I needed to hear. I wanted the gig real bad, so I went to work at it. Obviously that, mixed with going back to the original recipes, and the fresh juices and all that, it made a nice little package. I didn’t even think about signature cocktails for a while. I was having a helluva time figuring out how to do the classic ones.”

“I got my first menu out at the Rainbow Room, and it was a disaster. I had 26 of the hardest drinks to make, ever. And these guys had never made them before, and all of a sudden they were nine deep at the bar. There was no ‘soft opening.’ We opened the doors and there were thousands of people. So I took the first menu out after six months, which really pissed Joe off because it cost a fortune – laser graphics, glossy everything. And I’m ripping it out of service and Joe was like, ‘Jesus Christ, Dale! We put a lot of money in this thing.’ I said, ‘It’s not working.’ Joe hung in with me, it took us a year to make it work, but eventually it worked.”

It was Baum who told DeGroff to go find Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks: Or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion. “I went to bookstore after bookstore. The S.O.B. never told me it was written in 1862!” [laughter]

For Harrington, part of the intrigue of classic cocktails came from his aha moment, when DeGroff asked him what he was working on. Harrington realized he was focused on service and technique, and not necessarily recipes. After that night, he began photocopying and reading old cocktail books from the UC Berkeley library. “When I started bartending, you made Negronis for your bartender friends if you wanted to play a joke on them, and you muddled a Kamikaze if you really respected them and wanted to make something fresh. So that instinct was there to use fresh juices and take care in making cocktails.”

“The first drink I remember coming across in an old Trader Vic’s guide was the Pegu [Club]. I looked at it and said, ‘Well, that’s just a Kamikaze with the vodka switched out for gin, and add some bitters.’ The next day, I went into the bar and made it. ‘Wow, that’s good.’ That was inspiring. That was my original search, looking for drinks that you could promote to people, that they would be familiar with. Personally, I enjoy spending time with people who drink spirits more than people who drink beer and wine. So I was trying to build that clientele.”

“I never worked off a menu, this was something I would offer to people if I thought they’d be up for it.” DeGroff noted, “Nobody had menus, it wasn’t just Paul. In that era, you went to bars, there were no cocktail menus anywhere.”

Harrington continued, “I bought a Charles Schumann book, Memories of a Cuban Kitchen, that had a bunch of Cuban cocktails in the back of it – the Hemingway Daiquiri and the Mojito. They were just fun to make. In architecture school, they teach you that you can do anything with design, but you have to have a reason for doing it. To bartend, I have to have a reason for making these drinks. The classics was an easy… all the ingredients weren’t there. Some drinks you couldn’t make, you couldn’t get the product. But you’d run across the product at times. So that was it, I found that rewarding.”

Dale DeGroff’s Accidental Sour
The next cocktail was DeGroff’s Accidental Sour, made with Tanqueray No. TEN, Pineau des Cherantes, apricot liqueur and lemon juice. The name was inspired by the story behind the pineau, a “wonderful bit of lore” as DeGroff calls it in his recipe for the Rainbow Sour, from The Craft of the Cocktail. According to the story, a cognac maker accidentally dumped freshly squeezed grape juice into a barrel that was half-filled with cognac, not knowing what was inside. He was so angry that he set it aside, thinking the cognac was ruined. A couple of years later, “he tasted it and thought, this is pretty darn good. I’ve never met that guy, and David Wondrich hasn’t corroborated this yet, so it’s still lore.”

SIGNATURE DRINKS & MODERN CLASSICS
When asked about his thoughts on signature drinks, Cleve answered, “I think it’s intriguing, because we did go through that period where we were going through all these books and finding these drinks that hadn’t been made in ages. Maybe they never even really made them – how many Last Words were made in the 1920s, who knows?” Today, when someone goes to a craft cocktail bar, it’s likely they’re going to that specific bar to get those specific drinks. Cleve continued, “You’re not necessarily going to get them anywhere else. So that’s what the appeal is of a certain bar or a group of bartenders, individually and collectively. I find it fascinating, actually. If I want to have a Last Word, I can order it. I certainly hope every bartender knows how to make that, or a Manhattan or a Martini or whatever. The idea that you can have something completely original is good.”

Winchester posed the question, why so few modern classics? DeGroff quickly answered, “How can we tell yet? For a car, it’s 25 years to become a classic.” Winchester replied, “There are certain [modern] classics – the Bramble, the Penicillin.”

“I think Paul Clarke pulled it together pretty well in his Imbibe article,” said DeGroff to enthusiastic applause. “He mentioned several that we all love to drink and love to make, and he hit a lot of them right on the head.” DeGroff added that there were other cocktails from Europe, citing the Vodka Espresso as a popular example. “Names. Names are so damn important, that could be the classic right there if you get the right name.”

THE ALCHEMIST
Winchester asked Harrington, “With HotWired, you were the virtual godfather. How did that come about?” Harrington said he left the Townhouse to help open Enrico’s in SF. One night, two writers stopped by to write an “ironic article” about great summertime drinks to have in San Francisco – ironic, given the city’s notoriously cold summers. Harrington talked about the Mojito and the Hemingway Daiquiri. “Back then, writers were writers and bartenders were bartenders, there wasn’t the crossover we have today. So they loved it, and wrote an article about it.” One of the writers, Gary Wolf, became the editor of HotWired, the first commercial web magazine and sister publication of Wired magazine. Laura Moorhead and Graham Clarke – both fans of Combustible Edison, natch – approached Wolf with the idea of doing a cocktail website. Wolf referred them to Harrington, who was transitioning into architecture, but welcomed the income that a weekly column would bring. “It was great, because it was a chance for me to write down my thoughts about the industry and the cocktails that I’d been making.”

Once a week, Harrington would go to the Wired offices and make half a dozen drinks. There were initially 12 writers, and Harrington would tell them what he knew about a drink to get them started on research. The writing was a collaborative effort – it took about six months to get enough content to launch the site.

During this time, Moorhead – who later co-authored Cocktail with Harrington – helped him create “The Alchemist” persona. “[Laura] helped me craft words, she knew what I was saying and she knew what the aesthetic was, what I was trying to do with classic cocktails. It was a lot of fun.”

Cleve mentioned that a lot of his clientele in Boston were from the tech world. “There were no smartphones back then, so they would print the pages from HotWired with Paul’s drinks and come in and say, ‘Can you make me this?’ Then they brought the book in after that came out.”

NEXT: The University of Bartending, Secrets to Success, the Cocktail Nation, “Show Me the Money!” and more in The Godfathers Part Two.


Jasmine cocktail by Paul Harrington

The Jasmine, from “Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century”

Jasmine
Created by Paul Harrington
Ingredients:

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 0.25 oz Cointreau
  • 0.25 oz Campari
  • 0.75 oz lemon juice

Preparation:

  • Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
  • Garnish with a lemon twist.

 

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