King Cocktail Speaks

Dale DeGroff on his new book and the perils of mixology

Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. King Cocktail, has been championing the art of the well-mixed drink since taking over the bar at the Rainbow Room in New York in 1987. That is, a cocktail with fresh everything—juice, herbs, fruit—and good liquor. DeGroff just published his latest book, The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks. CHOW caught up with him when he was in San Francisco with Pernod for a party and some schmoozing, and heard the inside scoop on what “geeky” bars are doing wrong, how the $12 cocktail will fare in the recession, and the importance of good ice. Lessley Anderson

Your new book is full of interesting anecdotes about cocktail history. What’s one of your favorites?

The drink we served at the party the other night, Monkey Gland [absinthe, gin, orange juice, grenadine], has an interesting story. It was served at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris as a novelty drink. It was named after what was essentially Victorian Viagra: This quack doctor was implanting monkey glands in men.

Will people stop drinking absinthe now that it’s legal and they realize it’s kind of gross?

The good stuff, like what’s being made by Ted Breaux right now in France, is really good. I think it’s going to race through the Hollywood community. Absinthe bars are opening everywhere. Dig this: Morton’s called me, and they want me to do absinthe fountains in their steakhouses! And cocktails made with real absinthe, like the Sazerac, taste better than ones made with a substitute. It’s like night and day.

How important is good ice to a cocktail, and what should people be using at home?

It’s very important, particularly if you’re doing, say, a Derby party and serving Mint Juleps. You’ll want crushed ice that is very powdered and dry, so the ice will freeze on the outside. The best thing to do is to go online and buy some coin sacks. Then go to an icehouse and get a chunk of ice. Chip some off, put it in the bags, and hit it with a wooden mallet until it’s really dry and fine.

Let’s talk about the mixology trend.

I have to take the rap for that thing. When I’d hire bartenders at the Rainbow Room, they’d come in and not have any tools or skills or anything, unlike the CIA-graduated chefs, who came in with their knife rolls and were professionals. The bartenders, all they’d think about was meeting women and making money. I went back to old newspapers and cocktail books and found this word, mixologist, that was sometimes used as a term of sarcasm, like for a phony chemist. I revived it, and got flack from older bartenders. But I told the younger people coming up: Take a cooking course and learn how to make a sauce, learn about ingredients. I wanted the profession of being a bartender to be professional.

But now that there are all these professional bartenders out there charging a lot of money for their handmade concoctions, do you think there will be enough people who want to drink them, especially in a recession?

A culinary cocktail doesn’t have to be any more expensive than a regular cocktail; you just have to be vigilant and watch your fresh ingredients. Learn how to juice properly, so you don’t lose any. Look to the kitchen and act like a chef to know how to manage things properly.

But what about on the consumer side: Will it be worth it for customers to continue to pay upward of $12 for a cocktail?

People are not going to go to the geeky bars unless they can get a goddamn drink. [Mixologists] are going to have to do what the sports bars do—make drinks in one to one and a half minutes—or people are not going to go there. If they want it to be mainstream, they’re going to have to get over it and learn how to free-pour.

How do you measure a free-poured cocktail?

It just takes practice. Practice it with different-sized glasses. When building a cocktail, never build in the metal part of your shaker, always the glass so you can see what you’re doing. Always start with the sour, then sweet, and then strong, pre-ice. Too much sour can ruin your drink. Sour mixes were invented because sours are the hardest drinks to make.

What are some of the most common mistakes that bars make when they’re trying to do real drinks with real juice and stuff?

They let the juice turn. Juice doesn’t last more than one day. And they don’t batch stuff. If you’re making 200 of a certain drink at cocktail hour, mix four things as a base, then grab the juice and bitter at the last minute. If it’s not busy, you can be leisurely. Also, bars are poorly designed, with very little refrigeration space. We need them to be redesigned for the 21st century. And most places are serving drinks in glasses that are too big. Glasses should not be big. Cocktails are meant to be 12 to 15 cold sips as a stimulant to a meal, five ounces max. Be smart and go back to the retro glass.

Lessley Anderson is senior editor at CHOW.
Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe

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