Jeffery Lindenmuth / April 2003
Food Arts presents the April 2003 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Dale DeGroff—aka King Cocktail—steward of American drinking heritage and debonair innovator of modern classic cocktails.
The resuscitated Rainbow Room, that late-1980s incubator of fame drom bar visionary Joe Baum, thrust DeGroff, enthusiastically shaking and smiling, to the top of New York City nightlife. But his career began with a familiar story—an aspiring actor behind the bar—first at the original Charlie O's in Rockefeller Center (1969) and later at the luxurious Hotel Bel-Air in California. "I just walked in. Those were the days before you visited human resources and went through 10 interviews to land a bar job."
Like any great bartender, DeGroff has hundreds of these stories. And he knows how to tell them, as evidenced in his entertaining and instructional book The Craft of the Cocktail. His epic life even has its somber footnotes, like conducting his final "Spirits in the Skybox" seminar at Windows on the World on September 10, 2001, thus closing its Greatest Bar on Earth for the last time.
In 1985 DeGroff teamed up with his mentor, Baum, in Manhattan for the opening of Aurora, where Baum dictated in a Lazarus-like raising of the classic cocktail bar, including a return of fresh juices.
Aurora represented a seminal moment, not only for DeGrodd, but also for his bartending progeny. "I fell in love with bartending and said I no longer need to pursue another career. I realized the bar is where I learned everything about life." And with that, the role of modern bartender as media darling was writ large–DeGroff cast in the lead.
His legacy is the revival of classic bartending, the renaissance of a profession, the reclamation of the dignity that Prohibition and gangsters had stolen from the golden era practitioners of the alchemic art. With juicer in hand, he cast out the tyranny of the dry, returning flavor to the cocktail.
Drawing on his collection of 500 classic cocktail books for inspiration, DeGroff concocts drinks for leading spirit brands (Bacardi, Courvoisier, Jameson) and events, like his collaboration with chef/owner Philippe Feret for publisher Rupert Murdoch's birthday at Brasserie Julien in New York City. As a consultant, his clients now include the new Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle hotel, Pravda, Pastis, and Zoë, all in New York City, as well as The Player and Milk & Honey in London.
And, in an ever-churning global service industry, his disciples have spread forth and multiplied, carrying with them DeGroff's traditional techniques and original contributions to the annals of great drinks. Revered by younger bartenders and aficionados of the well crafted drink alike, DeGroff is part of the living lore of the bar.