The king of cocktails: Dale DeGroff, of Pawcatuck, is renowned as a trailblazing mixologist
Dale DeGroff has been called The King of Cocktails and the daVinci of Drink and the father of the modern craft-cocktail renaissance. So, yes, he is a leading authority on adult beverages.
Who says? Well, The New York Times stated in 2015 that he is “one of the world’s foremost cocktail experts.” The renowned James Beard Foundation bestowed on him the Wine & Spirits Professional Award in 2009 and then inducted him into the foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America in 2015.
DeGroff, now 71, is credited with kicking off the craft cocktail revolution during his time (1987-99) as head bartender at the renowned Rainbow Room on top of 30 Rock in New York City.
His book “The Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Think Like a Master Mixologist” has become an indispensable guide for bartenders and for anyone wanting to create a really good cocktail. It was published in 2002, and DeGroff has an updated version coming out on Sept. 22.
He will also be doing a virtual fundraiser on Aug. 22 for Sofia Sees Hope, a Ledyard-based nonprofit patient advocacy organization that aims to “transform the lives of those affected by blindness caused by rare inherited retinal diseases.” The group works to increase awareness and research, and to provide outreach, support and education for people affected by those diseases.
DeGroff, who is an alum of Westerly High School and URI, has settled back into the area, buying a home in Pawcatuck this spring. The structure was built in 1927 by Otto Seidner, who created Seidner Mayonnaise, for his daughter. DeGroff’s grandfather was a master carpenter and, DeGroff believes, worked on this house.
“There are some architectural touches inside that are on his house up on Linden Street in Westerly which I don’t see anywhere else,” he says.
As for DeGroff’s connection to the area: “My mom grew up in Westerly, and I think damned half the town of Westerly, I’m related to — the Gencarellis, the Gallos — it goes on and on,” he says with a chuckle.
DeGroff’s mother met his father during World War II when he was learning at the Charlestown air field how to fly a plane off of aircraft carriers. Dale spent the first 18 months of his life on the atoll of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific.
“Then from there on, it was (living) all around the United States and, as a teenager, in Morocco and Spain. We came back to Westerly in my dad’s retirement and in my junior year, finished out high school and went to URI.”
He was heavily involved with the theater department at URI. During his junior year, he acted in a URI performance of Lanford Wilson’s play “Home Free!” at the Yale Drama Festival that garnered a lot of acclaim.
“The New York magazine guy who was at the Yale festival wrote it up really nicely. I read the review, and I said, ‘That’s it!’... I packed my bags and went to New York,” he laughs. “I figured I’d be on Broadway in no time. It was true — to this day, at no time have I been on Broadway.”
Acting’s loss was the world of cocktails’ gain.
From Howard Johnson’s to the Rainbow Room
“I did work a lot. I ended up going to Los Angeles — even though I worked in bars all over New York. I worked as a dishwasher at Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. I worked as a waiter at several places, bartended several places. Then ended up in Los Angeles, still chasing this show business dream, but ended up working in, oh, such wonderful places as a bartender. Like the Hotel Bel-Air, which was one of the great hotels in the world at the time.”
He met his wife, Jill, in L.A., and they had two children. When DeGroff heard that Joe Baum, who had created landmark restaurants like The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City, was opening a new place called Aurora in the Big Apple and was hiring, DeGroff’s ears perked up.
“That was not Joe’s primary objective at that one moment. (Aurora) was kind of a workshop, and his primary objective was this two-year contract he got to restore this famous ‘30s supper club on top of 30 Rock,” DeGroff recalls.
DeGroff was hired as head bartender at Aurora, and Baum, he remembers, “asked me to do a classic 19th-century cocktail bar. Because really the golden age is considered to be 1880s to 1912 or so, just prior to Prohibition, where a lot of great drinks were evolved — martini, Manhattan, all that stuff. He wanted that kind of program, no mixes, no (bar) gun, none of that. Really classic.”
Baum liked what he saw of DeGroff’s work at Aurora and hired him for the Rainbow Room. DeGroff brought back old-school drinks and gave them fresh spins, and this was at a time when few other venues even had cocktail lists. He used fresh ingredients, which was also revelatory during that era.
It was at the Rainbow Room where DeGroff earned his nickname. Journalist Cynthia Fagen, who worked for “A Current Affair” and then The New York Post, stopped in occasionally for drinks. After an especially difficult day, he recalls, “She ordered from the menu first, and then, as she finished a drink, she asked me for another different drink. She slowly worked down the menu, and about five drinks in, she said, ‘These are all so good, you are the King of Cocktails!’”
Powered by the success of his work at the Rainbow Room, DeGroff went on to write books and to appear on TV shows ranging from “Martha Stewart Living” to “The Today Show” to programs on The Food Network. He also founded the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.
“The Craft of the Cocktail” (which DeGroff said he had wanted to name “Tall Tales and Cocktails: My Life Behind Bars,” before he was convinced to go with a more direct title) was a hugely influential book. It won the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Julia Child Award in 2003 in the First Book category.
Keys to a great cocktail
His own favorite cocktail of the moment depends on the country he’s in, the bar and the bartender.
“I always love a well-made dry martini, but which dry martini depends on the factors (mentioned above). If I’m in Cuba, Jill and I made a trip a few years ago in large part to taste some of the great rum drinks invented during Prohibition at the famous Floradita Bar. We drank Hemingway Daiquiris! If I am sitting at Revel Bar and Restaurant in New Orleans with legendary bartender Chris McMillian, I’ll probably have a Sazerac or a Vieux Carré,” he says.
And sometimes he prefers a Narragansett Lager, as he did on a recent afternoon, as he sat on the front porch of his home for this interview. He remembers Narragansett being a go-to beverage during his URI years.
So what makes a great cocktail? DeGroff says that, of course, that means, first and foremost, it must have “a high degree of deliciousness, but you can have that at home with a couple internet videos showing you how. But when a drink is served in a great bar or a cocktail lounge with ambience, by a friendly, attentive bartender, the delicious drink becomes much more. It becomes memorable. You’ll probably order another or at least you’ll make a mental note that this is your kind of place and come back frequently. That is a great drink!”
With the current pandemic, many bars have had to shut their doors because of government mandates. DeGroff realizes that some bars will close permanently, but he also sounds a hopeful note about the long-term prospects. He says that bars have been around a long time — they were found in the ruins of Pompeii — so the desire for people to gather together around food and alcoholic drinks will always be with us.
If you go
Who: Dale DeGroff
What: Gives virtual presentation on “The Evolution of the Martini: From 1888 to the New Millennium,” with Erik Andersson, eastern region ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin
Benefits: A fundraiser to benefit LCA and rare inherited retinal disease treatments; LCA is a group of inherited retinal diseases causing blindness or severe vision loss in early childhood
When: 7-8:30 p.m. Aug. 22
To register: sofiasees.org; people can also sign up to buy martini ingredients ahead of time