Amid the flash and dash of the 1980s bar scene, Dale DeGroff reawakened bartending sensibilities with his emphasis on fresh ingredients and mixology skills.
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Cheers to 25 Years!

Jeffery Lindenmuth - January/February 2014

We’ve come a long way since snooty somms and speed-rack demons dominated beverage service. Jeffery Lindenmuth takes a look back at the trends and phenomena that have enhanced service for customers and elevated stature for pros.

There has never been a better time in America to be a drinks lover—or a drinks pro. Across the realms of wine, spirits, cocktails, and beer, consumer appreciation has advanced hand-in-hand with the careers of professionals dedicated to delivering beverage excellence. Many opportunities afforded today’s up-and-coming mixologists, sommeliers, and cicerones (an altogether new certification, denoting qualified beer professionals) failed to exist for their forebearers—not least of which are six-figure salaries and 401Ks.

Dale DeGroff, who pioneered the use of fresh juices and the revival of classic cocktails at Manhattan’s Rainbow Room in the 1980s, stands tall in the drinks world and the pages of Food Arts, a vaunted champion of the cocktail arts and author of The Craft of the Cocktail, the essential textbook for aspiring mixologists. “The culinary revolution set the stage for us in a real way. It created such an enormous audience, millions strong, for all these things,” recounts DeGroff. “I was intent on making great drinks, but we needed an audience that was willing to try stuff. When that happened, we were able to move along much faster.”

Trying stuff equally included wine. In the last decade, America became a nation of certifiable wine lovers for the first time. Since polling began in 1992, Gallup consistently reported that U.S. drinkers preferred beer, but in 2005, fueled by increased acceptance of wine among men, young people, and minorities, wine beat out brew. Gallup notes that over the past two decades, younger drinkers, aged 18 to 29, shifted their preferred beverages dramatically in favor of wine and spirits, while beer remains the preferred beverage of 30 to 49 year olds. The effect of these new wine drinkers has been to seed the sommelier profession with youthful vigor and results in restaurant wine lists that feature more affordable and adventurous selections. “These customers are so curious, and the majority of them have such thoughtful questions when it comes to the wine list,” says Olivier Flosse, wine director for the MARC US restaurant group, including New York City’s A Voce restaurants. “Perhaps it’s because of the rise in technology, but it seems that our younger guests are so knowledgeable about wine, with the desire to experience and try more.” Among today’s experiential drinkers, wine, beer, and cocktails don’t battle it out as much as peacefully co-exist. Even in Napa Valley, the birthplace of America’s global wine debut, cocktails dot restaurant tables. Meanwhile, in cocktail bars, wine and beer make their appearance in rediscovered shandies, cobblers, sangria, and cocktails bursting with bubbles.

Bartenders Get Their Due
The James Beard Foundation added several awards to honor drink pros, beginning with Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional in 1991. DeGroff received the honor in 2009, the first bartender in a succession of wine luminaries. “At that time, I was the first cocktail bartender to win any kind of award. I didn’t have wine knowledge, and I remember before the announcement, Fritz Maytag [of Anchor Brewing] pulled me aside and said, ‘Forget it, kid…they don’t give that to boozehounds like you and me.’” The award for Outstanding Wine Program, also created in 1991, was finally joined by Outstanding Bar Program in 2012, honoring PDT in New York City, followed by The Aviary in Chicago a year later. “The talent, imagination, and creativity happening behind the bar over the past decade equals what’s occurring in the country’s top kitchens. Bar chefs and wine professionals deserve as much attention as restaurant chefs,” says Providence Cicero, chair of the Restaurant & Chef Awards Committee. “As wine, beer, and spirits have become a prominent and integral component of the dining experience, the foundation’s decision to expand with awards in these categories supports the growth that’s naturally happening within these segments.”

Meet Me—Not in the Bar
Bartenders initially rediscovered the cocktail community through forums and discussion boards on the Internet. “The Internet spread the gospel of the cocktail. Suddenly it was possible for a guy in the middle of nowhere to be part of the community and contribute to the craft,” says DeGroff, acknowledging the efforts of Internet cocktail pioneers like Robert “Drink Boy” Hess, an amateur cocktail enthusiast and Microsoft employee who created a web forum for bartenders in 1996 (it now resides at ChanticleerSociety.org). Here, bartenders pieced together a lost history, shared their discoveries, and ultimately spawned national and citywide celebrations. Ann Rogers founded Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in 2003, and in the space of the last 11 years grew it from a small gathering of cocktail devotees to an international event featuring over 200 educational seminars. “My team and I organize Tales of the Cocktail, but we consider it the industry’s event. They curate it and work very closely with us on every aspect of the content and the key components,” says Rogers. “The event evolves every year, but I believe bartenders embraced it since it’s their own and it’s the gathering place for the world’s most influential mixologists to share ideas.”

San Francisco bartenders banded together to create their own Cocktail Week, which launched in 2007, and Lesley Townsend founded the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in 2009. “Tales of the Cocktail brought everyone in from around the world to continue the conversation and build on ideas. Each year, that gathering does what every major industry conference aims to do: bring people together to share, teach, and grow,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of Elixir in San Francisco and a founder of San Francisco Cocktail Week. “The San Francisco bartending community from 2005 to 2008 sat at each other’s bars and shared ideas, experiences, and even recipes. We started San Francisco Cocktail Week to show the local audience exactly what we were doing and bring it to light.”

Quality Cocktails, Made Quickly
Whether toasting by the hundreds at large events or huddled in small speakeasy-style venues, consumers’ embrace of craft cocktails saddled bartenders with a new challenge—how to satisfy the service side of this emerging thirst. Rather than become victims of success, events like Tales of the Cocktail refined cocktail batching, using simple science and assembly-line production to dole out Rolls-Royce quality drinks with Henry Ford efficiency. Smaller venues like The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in lower Manhattan embraced styles of drinks that were traditionally disposed to communal consumption, including punch bowls and pre-mixed punches served in jugs, designed to encourage impatient drinkers to consider cocktails as an alternative to a glass of wine. Meanwhile, the Tippling Bros. cocktail consulting team of Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay tackled cocktails in kegs at Chicago’s Tavernita, using a proprietary system to deliver a rotating selection of cocktails made as easy as drafting a beer.

Sommelier Redefined
No sooner had most Americans learned the French word for a wine steward, when sommeliers began expanding and redefining their role. After making his mark as Master Sommelier and wine director at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado, Richard Betts went on to lend his talents, and name, to launch Betts & Scholl wines in 2004, while Kevin O’Connor departed Wolfgang Puck’s Spago to found Lioco wines, and Daniel Johnnes, sommelier and wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group, added winemaker to his extensive résumé, crafting Pinot Noir in Oregon and Burgundy. By 2010, enough sommeliers had joined the winemaking club that the now defunct Adour Alain Ducasse in The St. Regis New York added a section on their list dedicated to wines crafted by sommeliers. Other sommeliers expanded their expertise into beer, sake, and, yes, cocktails.

In 2009, Rajat Parr, wine director for The Mina Group, fulfilled his dream of a Burgundian enclave in San Francisco’s financial district by launching the wine-driven restaurant RN74, while just last year in Chicago, Alpana Singh, formerly sommelier at Everest, brought her sommelier perspective to dining with The Boarding House.

Beverage directors and sommeliers also became more active than ever as educators, as consumers sought out programs like ENO-versity at The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay in California and Bar Camp at Lincoln and Beer Camp at sister restaurant Sunshine Tavern, both in Portland, Oregon.

Pop Culture Portrayals
Tom Cruise’s big-screen homage to the playboy bartender in Cocktail (1988) now appears as outmoded as neon skirts and big hair, as portrayals of real bar and wine professionals and their roles in current and historic events arrived on screens, large and small. It’s been a decade since catchy Wine Country film Sideways (2004) rocked the California wine world by declaring disdain for generic Merlot and pulled every sommelier in the country into the conversation. Bottle Shock (2008) told the Hollywood interpretation of the Paris wine tasting of 1976 and of Food Arts Silver Spoon recipients (2006) Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and Warren Winiarski. Toby Cecchini’s book Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life (2003) attempted to shine on bartending the same light of truth that Anthony Bourdain had cast on the kitchen three years earlier. Now in its third season, Jon Taffer makes a spectacle of saving floundering bar programs in the tradition of chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares with Bar Rescue on Spike TV, ensuring all of America knows terms like “in the weeds” and “free pour.” Most recently, the documentary film Somm (2012) conveyed the prestige of The Court of Master Sommeliers with the tale of four men studying for “the most difficult test you’ve never heard of,” the Master Sommelier Exam.

Bar Chefs and Chefs Behind the Bar
After leaving David Bouley’s Danube for Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town in 2001, Albert Trummer, a New York City bartender originally from Austria, adopted the title “bar chef,” to denote his use of ingredients and techniques that were formerly reserved for chefs. Along with brother Stefan, the Trummers came to embrace pastry chefs like Bill Yosses, who collaborated on many drinks with them for gourmet market Citarella in 2003, and across the nation the line between drinks and desserts began to blur.

Likewise, chefs turned their attention directly to the mixing glass. Upon opening The Third Man in New York City’s East Village in 2013, Eduard Frauneder, partner with Wolfgang Ban in Seäsonal Restaurant & Weinbar and Edi & The Wolf, declared it a chef-driven cocktail concept. “I’m a Michelin-starred chef. I don’t need a bartender to create homemade drinks,” he says. In reality, chefs and bartenders are more closely allied than ever before, venturing into each other’s sacred sanctuaries with great results.

Often born of these kitchen collaborations, DIY ingredients remain a hallmark of many cocktail programs, as bartenders integrate house-made bitters, tonic, soda, syrups, infusions, pickles, and tinctures in myriad flavors. “Bar chef” was never widely embraced, but Trummer’s title proved portentous as farm-fresh ingredients, modernist techniques, foraging, healthy living, and every other food movement are echoed almost immediately in the rattle of a cocktail shaker.

Wine Gets Casual, Cocktailians Get Courted
Sommeliers were all too delighted to shed their image as otherworldly cellar-dwellers, embracing affordable wines with consumer-friendly pricing models, like the flat mark-up instituted by Marc Murphy at Landmarc. They traded the upsell for value-spotting, catering to diners reeling through the early 1990s recession, then the 2000s dot-com recession, and again for the Great Recession of 2008. As sommeliers became more likely to show up at the table sporting a tattoo than a tastevin, Food Arts welcomed the acceptance of budget half bottles, then quality box wine (2008), followed by the advent of wine on tap.

Mixologists have emerged as valued partners, discovering, creating, and promoting new spirits. “In the past few years, we’ve seen products that specifically cater to the trade. On the whole, the spirits companies have largely embraced the critical role the bartender plays. While I think five years ago they were more of an afterthought, they’re now a critical part in the product development process,” says Alexandra Sklansky, of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Products like overproof Cognac from Louis Royer and Hayman’s Old Tom Gin answered the bartender outcry for critical ingredients lacking in the liquor cabinet.

According to DISCUS, the number of products on the shelf actually stays about the same, but changes to reflect current taste, with flavored products—covering wasabi, salmon, salted caramel, and more—now representing 40 percent of new spirits. Currently, smaller microdistillers, often located locally in urban enclaves, are mirroring the revolution initiated with microbrewed beer decades ago.

Bartenders Without Bars, Sommeliers Sans Cellars
As they emerged as cult heroes in their own right, bartenders found themselves new objects of desire. In many cities the demand for bar professionals outstripped supply. Bar pros like Scott Beattie, then of Cyrus in Healdsburg, California, and Todd Thrasher of PX in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, were among the many to turn their respective venues into true drinking destinations, beckoning the imbibing equivalent of foodies.

It used to be that all bartenders dreamed of owning their own bar. But with demand for their skills on the rise, many now dream of having no bar at all. Mixologists and their wine-loving counterparts are going freelance, consulting for cruise ships, like Junior Merino, who created The Liquid Chef and landed modernist cocktails on the high seas with Celebrity Cruises, and Beattie, who now counts the W South Beach hotel among his clients.

Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer left Laurent Tourondel’s BLT restaurants in 2009 to start Juiceman Consulting. “At that point, I had launched 15 restaurants and felt that I could do almost anything. I like that one day I can be working on intimate restaurants like Motorino [in Williamsburg, Brooklyn] and the next working with large projects like Arlington Club, from Tourondel and the Tao Group,” says Dexheimer, whose services also include cocktail programs, educational spokesperson for international wine regions, and more. The flying winemaker is joined by the flying sommelier. Dexheimer’s latest project, underway in Durham, North Carolina, named Straw Valley Café, will embrace the best of cocktails, wine, coffee, and beer—all displayed in a friendly and relaxed way that defines today’s beverage pro. “When I’m on the floor, I plan to be rocking a Mötley Crüe T-shirt with my Master Sommelier pin on it,” he says.