On April 12 the Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC) hosted Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. “King Cocktail,” at the Warehouse Theater in Washington, DC where he performed his “On the Town: A Tribute to Bars, Speaks, and Legendary Saloons,” incorporating tales and songs about the watering holes of yesteryear and Dale’s own career path as a bartender. Accompanied by local DC legend Dan Ruskin on piano, Dale strummed his guitar and sang classic tunes while sharing stories. Cocktails were provided by volunteers and the wonderful staff from The Passenger. Proceeds from the event went to fund MOTAC and promote membership to the museum which has many perks including access to the museum’s digital library and discounts on seminars and books.
Dale, Founding President of MOTAC, is considered the father of the modern-day cocktail renaissance, credited with reinventing the profession of bartending in the late 1980s. His career has spanned more than 40 years, having won numerous awards including the 2009 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional Award. He is the author of “The Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master Bartender” and “The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks.”
Dale’s stories began with an overview of the history of cocktail-making, spanning over several centuries. He noted that up until the turn of the 20th Century inns, usually located at the center of town, played a uniting role for many communities and cities. The first “celebrity” bartenders such as Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson came to define cocktail culture during the Gilded Age. As time changed inns and taverns became restaurants and hotels. Cocktails became more widely available as technological advances allowed easier production of ice as well the more efficient shipment of fruits and the mass production of juices and mixers. As the US cocktail culture went underground during Prohibition, many of the great American bartenders either sought work in Canada or overseas or simply moved on to other professions. During Prohibition, speakeasies were generally run by gangsters, which later, even decades after Prohibition was repealed, had a negative effect on the image of bartending as many associated the profession with crime and the mob. Dale attributes Prohibition with the demise of the US cocktail culture and the art of bartending as it left a void of not only knowledgeable and experienced bartenders, but led to the shutting down of many US distilleries and iconic American bars. In the decades to follow, cocktail culture steadily declined with formal, more upscale bars being replaced by rock n’ roll and disco clubs and casual-style fern bars.
Dale segued from story to story with the singing of classic tunes such as “Your Cheating Heart,” “Basin Street,” “Lulu’s Back in Town,” “This is so Nice, it Must Be Illegal,” “Aint Misbehaving,” “C-U-B-A” and “Sweet Sue.”
At what was in Dale’s view the end of the New York bar era, he arrived in the Big Apple in 1969 with the intent on becoming an actor which never materialized and led him to take a job in advertising. During that time he would visit many of New York’s iconic bars such as Charley O’s, Downey’s, P.J. Clarke’s, and McSorley’s. One night Charley O’s was short on staff for an event at the New York mayoral house Gracie Mansion and Dale was able to convince them to give him a shot behind the bar where his love affair with the profession began. While working in advertising DeGroff would come to know Joe Baum, one of New York City’s biggest restaurateurs at the time, who opened the Four Seasons, Charley O’s, and the Latin-themed La Fonda del Sol. In the late 70s DeGroff moved to Los Angeles where he became a bartender at the Hotel Bel-Air where he was able to educate himself and perfect his craft. In 1985 Baum hired DeGroff to be the head bartender at Aurora in New York, which focused on well-made cocktails using top-shelf spirits, fresh-squeezed juices and an atmosphere where the bartender took center stage in welcoming and interacting with guests. DeGroff immersed himself in the history of bartending and books such as Jerry Thomas’ “How to Mix Drinks,” as well as vintage manuals and menus. In 1987 Baum opened the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center and put DeGroff in charge of the bar where he worked through the 1990s. DeGroff’s menu of classic cocktails, many of which had gone into virtual extinction such as the Gin Fizz and Singapore Sling, along with the restaurant’s classy mid-century charm, quickly caught the attention of the media, celebrities and politicians. As noted in MOTAC’s DC seminar on Vodka Classics, Dale perfected the Cosmopolitan becoming an iconic cocktail after Madonna was seen drinking one at a Grammy party at the Rainbow Room.
Guests at the Warehouse Theater were treated to the following classic cocktails including Dale’s original Yuzu Gimlet:
- Absinthe Frappe
- The Major Baily (Southside Style)
- Punch Royal
Recipes for these cocktails can be found on Dale’s website.
As always, the Museum of the American Cocktail would like to offer thanks to the generous support of our sponsors for this event, namely: Pernod, Marie Brizard, Hendrick’s Gin, Appleton Estate Rum, and Pierre Ferrand 1er Cru de Cognac.
Be sure to join us again in Washington, DC on May 14 for South of the Border Cocktails at Bourbon Steak presented by J.P. Caceres, Jamie MacBain, and Duane Sylvestre as they look at some of the great spirits and cocktails from warmer climes, notably rum/rhum, mezcal, tequila, pisco, and cachaca. You’ll not only learn about these great libations, but also how to make the drinks at home. Plus, enjoy sample cocktails, as well as delicious appetizers.
By Matt Keller