Legendary Mixologist Dale DeGroff Takes us on a Cocktail Safari
We go on a whirlwind tour of his favorite New York bars
Dale DeGroff loves his work. He drinks cocktails for a living. At 69, the self-styled godfather of the American mixology revival is fit and looks like he stepped out of a photo from his award-winning 2002 bestseller, The Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master Bartender. Or maybe from the label on a bottle of his namesake Pimento Aromatic Bitters.
“King Cocktail,” as he is known in the industry, is a legend. From 1987 to 1999, he presided over the bar at Manhattan’s illustrious Rainbow Room, where, in a red Eisenhower jacket, the James Beard Foundation winner created some of the world’s most elegant cocktails, which he served to equally elegant customers.
Evening One Brooklyn
“Mixology?” my favorite bartender at Grand Central Station winces. “Arrrrrrrrrrgh!!!”
Armed with that knowledge, I meet DeGroff at Clover Club in Carroll Gardens. He wears a bolo tie and walks like a cowboy. “The knees,” DeGroff confides. “Most bartenders end up with bad knees.” On his lapel is a silver cocktail shaker, a gift from the owner at Bar High Five in Tokyo: “In this community, you make friends all over the world.”
“I probably started that mixology controversy,” DeGroff adds. “I took the word out of a 19th-century book when I was at the Rainbow Room, and wanted to draw attention to what we were doing. So I called myself a master mixologist. My bartender friends thought I was a real jerk.”
An upscale restaurant/bar that could almost be a library, Clover Club is dimly lit, with fixtures that reflect on expensive wood and brown tufted leather banquettes. The front doors open wide to the street, a sharp contrast to owner Julie Reiner’s Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan, a place so discreet that people walk by it for years and never know it’s there.
Reiner’s cocktails are bizarrely delicious. There’s the Victory Garden, a refreshingly icy mix of tomato water, strawberries, gin, lemon, basil and sherry. The Green Giant is another amazing concoction, with snap peas, tarragon, lemon, dry vermouth and, of course, gin.
Fittingly, DeGroff’s first adventure in the spirits world began with gin. “I played guitar in a rock band,” he says. “We did the Beach Boys, ‘Wipe Out,’ all that stuff. Our singer was a master at everything and I thought he was a god. He drank warm gin out of a flask, and so did I, to be like him. I got so sick.”
Eventually, DeGroff got over it. Working at the Rainbow Room, he realized serious bartenders had to drink martinis (“Beefeater martinis are my favorite now”). He tried to convince patrons who wanted “anything but gin” to expand their palates, adding lemon juice, simple syrup and Angostura bitters to a gin creation he christened the Fitzgerald. It was a hit.
There are reasons why folks shun gin. Apart from an early bad experience, DeGroff was a hippie, and “we didn’t drink what our parents drank.”
But millennials do not have these notions. “We love them,” Reiner says. “We even named a drink for them: the Perennial Millennial, with blanco tequila, Campari, yellow Chartreuse and strawberry. Tell those millennials we want them here.”
Boudoir is owned by husband-and-wife team Tarek Debira and Patricia Ageheim. But while this decadently furnished Brooklyn Heights basement was designed as an homage to Marie Antoinette, this is Franky Marshall’s domain. “Ms. Franky” to her patrons, she is the chicly dressed beverage director whose previous gigs included Clover Club and the Monkey Bar.
A hidden room behind a bookcase is all silver, black and gilt. (“Anything can happen in here,” Ms. Franky smiles provocatively.) The rest is rococo French and lavishly red: Velvet banquettes hug the walls, while a doorknob scavenged from a chamber of the Queen herself is near a portrait of her pouring beer.
At the bar, even the golden Axel von Fersen cocktail—bourbon, applejack, sesame and curry (!) served in a silver-plated goblet—takes on a red glow. Ms. Franky balances two jiggers between her fingers to demonstrate the beauty of a measured pour.
“Okay, what’s that ingredient?”
She grins. “This is génépi, a liqueur from a flower that grows in the mountains of France. We combine it with gin, a bit of orange bitters, Pineau des Charentes … ”
“The Pineau des Charentes,” DeGroff interjects. “I always make martinis with it. There’s a story, I was wondering if it’s true … ”
“It was 1589,” Ms. Franky says.
“A cognac maker thought a barrel was empty and he put in some raw grape must even though it already had cognac. He created a new drink.”
DeGroff laughs. “So, this is an accidental product?”
On their first date, DeGroff and his wife, Jill, drank beer. “Bohemia beer. And we drank it the whole time. Funny, right? This fancy cocktail guy courted his wife with Bohemia beer.”
They rarely drink it now. “Jill likes Havana Club rum. I try to bring it back from Cuba or Europe because it’s hard to get. I mostly drink pure spirits.”
And when they throw a party? “Punch, so I don’t have to spend the whole night tending bar. And you want to make it light on the alcohol because people will be drinking a lot of it.”
DeGroff’s advice when going out: Sip slowly, stay hydrated and eat small bites constantly. “At the Rainbow Room we kept bottles of colored water behind the bar. The place was very elegant. We couldn’t have bartenders getting drunk, so when a customer offered to buy us drinks, we poured from the colored bottle behind the bar.”
An organic farmer in Upstate New York cultivates Horton rye seeds. “We went to the depository and asked if they could give us some organic heirloom Horton rye seeds,” says Tom Potter, owner of New York Distilling Company in Williamsburg. “These were very common here in the 1800s.”
In 2008, Potter acquired ten Horton seeds. “The problem is that it takes a year to cultivate ten seeds into a hundred,” he continues. “And then you harvest those to get a few thousand. But you need a million seeds per acre to plant. So, we didn’t have enough Horton available to distill until just two years ago. We put it into barrels last year, but it won’t be ready for five.”
This is a labor of love. The company has three- and four-year-old rye distilling in a roomful of barrels that reach almost to the ceiling. An on-site full-service bar, the Shanty, does offer their already mature Ragtime Rye, as well as Chief Gowanus and Dorothy Parker gin and other spirits. DeGroff has his own barrel of rye whiskey here, aging somewhere at the far right. Also, he performs at the space in his show Gamblers, Whiskey and Flying Horses, about horse racing and bourbon: “You get four drinks, five songs and a lot of stories.”
“I’m glad you are working with rye,” I tell Potter. “It’s healthier than corn.”
“I agree. I’m one of those people who think we consume far too much corn.”
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DeGroff is reminiscing about his early years enjoying New York jazz clubs: “You don’t go out in New York City looking for a party. You need to bring the party with you.”
Since 5 p.m. is early for Pegu Club, we have the whole place to ourselves. This award-winning SoHo bar is widely credited for spawning the first wave of the city’s cocktail revival. “A lot of great bartenders who now own their own places came from here,” DeGroff says. “This is like a nursery school.” Much of the credit goes to owner and mixology pioneer Audrey Saunders, a “tireless teacher” who launched her own career under DeGroff.
As he shakes and stirs, barista-turned-bartender Ricky Agustin asserts this is the best place to hone one’s craft. When I ask him if mint is his favorite herb—considering he serves us so much of it—he says that herbs are analogous to shoes: “Like, I wouldn’t wear dress shoes to the gym.”
Saunders planned our menu. We get Old Cubans, a new-age mojito ripe with mint, fresh lime and two “hard” dashes of bitters. The best part? The cocktail glasses. “That’s the Nick and Nora. I named it,” DeGroff enthuses, referencing the legendary 1930s detectives from The Thin Man series, who enjoyed chic imbibing while solving crimes. “I found it in an old catalogue. Every time I ordered the glass—and we ordered thousands—I called it the Nick and Nora.”
Employees Only is exactly what the name suggests: a lounge owned by a bunch of employee/friends who pooled their resources and opened a bar. That community spirit endures at this West Village haunt. “We had a disaster fund for years,” says principal bartender Steve Schneider, an inspiration for the 2013 film Hey Bartender. “Everyone contributed $20 a week. Then Hurricane Sandy hit. Thankfully, nobody got hurt. So we had all this excess money and took the whole team to Mexico. The following year, we went to Panama, and got the idea to open there.”
Apart from Clover Club’s Green Giant, EO’s Ready Fire Aim is one of my favorite drinks on the Safari. It’s a frothy mezcal-pineapple concoction that is creamy without cream, with a crush of pink peppercorns. EO even provides you with a pink peppermill, assuming you want more.
“Audrey Saunders always did that,” DeGroff says. “She serves whiskey sours with sides of simple syrup and lemon.”
Dressed in a running suit and a Yankees cap, Suffolk Arms owner Giuseppe Gonzalez doesn’t have to present himself like a rockstar. He knows who he is. Possibly the youngest, arguably the brattiest, and certainly the most iconoclastic mixologist to emerge from this community, he is known for many things, not the least of which is shaking it up. When everyone else is talking gin, Gonzalez is back to vodka. Mostly, though, he’s known for having created the Trinidad Sour, a mix of bitters, orgeat and rye so astonishing that rhapsodizing critics still call the drink “somewhat medicinal.”
Fashioned to resemble an English pub, Suffolk Arms on the Lower East Side seems a most unlikely place to sample great craft cocktails with eco-friendly straws. “My favorite bar in London is The Churchill Arms,” he explains. “Turns out, Churchill never went there. And while you’re expecting this British pub, the two owners are Australian, who serve Thai food. When I asked if they had fish and chips, they said, ‘No, mate, but we make a great pad thai.’”
The most interesting design element at Suffolk Arms? The framed sketches papering the walls. Representing great New Yorkers, the collection includes Mayor Ed Koch, Debbie Harry and CBGB owner Hilly Kristal.
“We had Robert Moses hanging in the bathroom but it got stolen. After three were stolen, we decided not to hang it again.”
Back at Grand Central, I’m waiting for the midnight train to the country. “So, how did it go?” Favorite Bartender asks.
“I feel like a kid who ate too much Halloween candy. But I loved it. The art of this craft, fresh ingredients, small pretty glasses, a riot of flavors, gorgeous clubs. Besides, where else can you get a full day’s serving of vegetables in your drink?”
She smiles. “How about something special? A Manhattan? Martini?”
“You happen to have a bottle of colored water behind that bar?”
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For more information on Dale DeGroff’s books, upcoming shows and line of bitters, visit kingcocktail.com.