On the Town: Life in Saloons, Speak Easies, & the Big City Bars A May Evening with “The King of Cocktails,” Dale DeGroff
I honestly didn’t know what the hell to expect as I was ushered into the black walled back bar theater at The Passenger Bar in DC. The place honestly looked like it was just rediscovered after a half century of being sealed off. My pal at The American Cocktail Museum, Phil Greene, introduced me to DeGroff, and it was like meeting the most down-to-earth gent in the industry. Unpretentious, relaxed, charming and so not like what I preconceived, Dale Degroff is the guy you’d want sitting next to you at the crowded bar. We chatted for a minute; I pitched our site and told him I’d read his book. I then went back out into the bar and waited to roll back into the theater with the crowd.
We’re all given a Sherry Cobbler while waiting to be seated. A mixture of sweet sherry, cognac, muddled orange peel and berries, the drink was like a Victorian carpet of flavors. It set the tone, I knew, at least the drinks were gonna be interesting. I sat in the musty house and out walks Dale playing a guitar like Woody Guthrie, singing Hank’s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. “Whoa,” this is already not just a bar-pro talking about the history of cocktails. I’m at a freakin’ performance art show. Dale finishes the song, explains its importance to his saloon passion and liver, then launches into two hours of pretty riveting bar stories — my favorite kind of story period. I’m hooked as the second drink, an Absinthe Frappe, rolls out. It’s a strong absinthe based drink, so I’m even more convinced I’m in for an evening.
I like DeGroff a lot ’cause, on occasion, he’d just stop talking, look down at his drink and smile as a pre-recorded song played softly in the background. This was no pre-planned gesture, you could see the guy drift off in a bar memory seconds before he told the tale. It was like watching a man remember old friends at a party. The smile or mumbled lyric came before the story. You could tell this stuff was important to him. Sometimes he would just stop his story before the last sentences and wave his hand as if in a “you just had to be there” gesture. What a breath of fresh air in its sincerity.
Don’t get me wrong, history was shared. I had no idea that cocktails were a direct result of America’s Industrial Revolution; that the Bitter Sling cocktail was most likely the very first; bartenders by the thousands were taught their trade between 1800 & 1850. What I was really surprised about was how little Dale DeGroff spoke about actual recipe & prep. This man is responsible for the rebirth of cocktail culture; he’s designed dozens of powerhouse cocktail menus and bar layouts, won a 2009 James Beard Foundation award, yet was just as interested in telling stories about why wishbones hang in a favorite NYC watering hole (in honor of soldiers who didn’t make it back from WW2 to take theirs down), or matriarchal saloon owners with mean left hooks. He shook off accolades aimed at him by the night’s MC like they were beer spills. This is why the night was so cool. Here we had the, arguably, most important professional in the cocktail industry telling more stories about characters and great old bars than he did about modern mixology and trends.
By the time the third cocktail rolled around, a Major Bailey cocktail made with gin, lime juice and fresh mint, the stories were still flowing. DeGroff talked about his time actually bartending in the major NYC power bars. His redesign of the Rainbow Room drink menu tied in with the deco, panoramic views and old-school refurbishing was very cool. The Rainbow Room was a place I’ve always wished I’d visited when I had the chance. Having the Bar King who brought classic cocktails back to it was a nice second place. He also spoke of the Times Square’ Howard Johnsons and how he washed dishes there. At least I could recall having three pretty damn good martinis there with my wife fifteen years back.
As the fourth and final cocktail of the evening was passed down the aisles, some sort of Gimlet, I’d given up on taking notes after the third drink, DeGroff spoke about the current state of cocktails and how he believed they were close to superseding or equaling food in importance in the kitchen. I’m not too sure about that and actually hope not, but DeGroff ended the thought with downplay and hope. He wished for a return and resurgence of the neighborhood saloon and saloon singing. The social heartbeat of a neighborhood can be found in their bars he explained. What I took away from this was what I’ve been saying on Mr. Booze for years — your bar, be it brick and mortar or in your very own basement or garage, is the place where friends and folks come together over a few drinks to laugh and goof and sort stuff out. How refreshing it was to have these feelings reconfirmed by the King of the pour. Great night!