Q&A with Dale DeGroff

For bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts around the world, Dale DeGroff (aka King Cocktail) is a man who truly needs no introduction. DeGroff’s twelve-year stint as head bartender of the Promenade Bar in New York’s Rainbow Room in the late 1980s continues to impact and influence the industry a generation later. Drawing inspiration from Jerry ThomasHow to Mix Drinks, DeGroff eschewed soda guns and mixers in favor of classic recipes, fresh ingredients, and authentic tools and techniques. What was revolutionary back then has become the standard for modern craft cocktail bars.

Dale DeGroff

Photo courtesy Dale DeGroff

Throughout his career, DeGroff has sought to share his knowledge and experience, further the craft of bartending, and preserve the history of the cocktail. He is a partner in the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) educational program, a partnership between six of the world’s leading spirits and cocktails authorities, who provide training and credentialing in distilled spirits and mixology. DeGroff is an instructor and presenter for the BarSmarts training program from Pernod Ricard USA, and helped in the development of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) Master Accreditation Program. Along with several world-renowned cocktail authorities and historians, DeGroff founded the Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing education in mixology and celebrating the history of the cocktail.

Among his numerous accolades, DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail earned IACP’s 2003 Julia Child Award for Best First Book; his follow-up book The Essential Cocktail won the 2009 Spirit Award; and he was named Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional at the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards.

In October, DeGroff will be one of the judges for Table 20’s 2nd Annual LA’s Best Bartender Competition. King Cocktail recently took some time from his busy schedule to give insights into his bartending philosophy, name his favorite LA bars, and offer a valuable tip for Best Bartender entrants.

Q: What does it mean to be a great bartender?
A: Bartending is a complex set of jobs, all occurring at the same time, but the most important of all those jobs is to make contact across the three feet of mahogany with the guest…get them a drink and make them want to stay.

A bartender must be many things to many different people and needs to be secure in their own identity to do that and not lose sight of self. A good bartender must have an acute sense of observation…the ability to “read” people. He or she has just a couple minutes when the guest arrives to determine what they need and how to make them happy.

A bartender is a great listener but is also full of information on restaurants, other bars, nightspots, local history, sports happenings and current events.

Is there a city you visited recently where the cocktail culture has really grown compared to previous visits?
Los Angeles has shown huge growth in the last few years. I remember just a few short years ago presenting a training and interest was so weak that of the seven people that did show up, three of them spent the whole time out front on their mobile phones. Times have changed…BarSmarts Live was a sell out last year with 140 attendees and several on a waiting list. The scene is cutting edge these days with great new joints coming on line every month. Boston is another town with a small but very skilled cocktailian community.

What current trend are you glad to see happening in craft cocktails?
Getting great drinks out quickly.

Is there a trend you wish would go away?
Getting great drinks out slowly.

Where do you like to have a drink when you’re in LA?
Caña Rum Bar, The Varnish, Seven Grand, Musso & Frank, Hotel Bel-Air (my old alma mater, if the joint re-opens*), The Edison…I would like to check out the new joint in Manhattan Beach, MB Post.
[*Hotel Bel-Air is scheduled to re-open in October 2011 after a 24-month renovation.]

Tales of the Cocktail recently wrapped up its ninth year. Any standout cocktails, new products or memorable moments?
The parties are getting better and better. Lots of American white whiskey and artisan distillers on hand, it is nice to see this community growing. Tasted a Parker Beam Bourbon whiskey finished in Cognac Casks that will come to the market soon. [Exhibits] for the Museum of the American Cocktail [have] never been better, and Tales events are now being presented at the Museum.

What advice would you give the bartenders you’ll be judging in Table 20’s Best Bartender competition?
Keep it simple. Most of the drinks that have survived from the pre-Prohibition classic age are four ingredients or less.

For more information about the 2nd Annual LA’s Best Bartender competition, visit labestbartender.strutta.com.

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  1. thirstyinla on August 29, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Dale left this comment on the Thirsty in LA Facebook page:

    Just a quick note about the last question … when I was asked my advice and I replied “keep it simple… 4 ingredients or less …” I would like to remind all that simple does not mean easy; mixing three or four perfectly matched ingredients in the correct balance is a daunting task from beginning to end.