“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]

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.”

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

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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

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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