All Hail Mixologist Dale DeGoff: King Cocktail
"I’m just saying the cocktail is becoming more culinary. You find bartenders who are matching their creations with big flavors. The cocktail has found its way."
Master mixologist Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. King Cocktail, developed his extraordinary techniques and talent tending bar at great establishments, most notably New York's famous Rainbow Room, where he pioneered a gourmet approach to recreating the great classic cocktails. DeGroff has been credited with reinventing the profession of bartending in the late 1980s, setting off a cocktail explosion that continues to this day.
DeGroff was one of the legendary bartenders invited to Bar Convent Berlin (BCB), where he gave two seminars, appearing on stage with two other bar legends, Charles Schumann and Peter Roth. His first seminar was on the subject of Bacardi Legends, the second on the cocktail renaissance of the 1980s. We managed to interview him during the event.
The bar industry seems to be changing in a big way. What are the main developments, as you see them?
Dale DeGroff: The DNA of the cocktail is certainly evolving. We are moving into a completely new era. We have embraced culinary techniques and culinary ingredients, like spices and herbs. Cocktails are becoming a necessary feature of every bar and restaurant. I’m not trying to usurp the place of wine, I’m just saying the cocktail is becoming more culinary. You find bartenders who are matching their creations with big flavors. The cocktail has found its way.
Another development is the renewed interest bartenders are taking in the history of cocktails and spirits. Why has this become so important?
Today there’s this great collaboration between the old and the new. We’re getting fresh ingredients and ideas, and we’re recreating old spirits and bitters recipes. We’re seeing those classic recipes as a jumping-off point, to give us a creative structure to build on. I’ve just made a drink based on the 1880s Manhattan, in which I replaced the vermouth with two different style of sherry, a dry and a sweet. I incorporate the bitters and, in place of the whisky, I use the Bacardi eight-year-old rum. And I came up with a very pleasing and food-friendly drink.
Vodka, rum and tequila are very popular today. What do you think are the spirits we shall be talking about tomorrow?
I see a very bright future for pisco. Pisco is a very old brandy, possibly the first brandy made in the New World. It dates back to the viceroys of Peru in the 1500s. A special wheel used in its production at this time has been discovered. It’s a very mixable spirit, there are two styles, one Chilean and one Peruvian, each of which has distinctive characteristics. Mezcal is also coming to the fore, as Tequila did, now that production is regulated and the quality is improving. You see more and more cachaça coming onto the market, too. With 30,000 distilleries over there, some are making real quality products. And even in the USA, some distilleries are trying their hand at whisky. You can find scotch-style smoky whiskies coming out of Oregon. I love the creativity emerging in the world of distilling; there’s so much going on.
What are your major activities right now?
I’ve got a bitter, based on a Wray & Nephew pimento liqueur I used to use. When they took it off the market, I was really depressed [laughs], so I decided to create a pimento bitter to replace that flavour in my cocktails. And I’m still a “gun for hire," I do a lot of stuff for brands, but I always protect myself. I’ve never been the face of anyone, any brand, because it can affect the rest of your activities. I don’t want to become brand ambassador or speaker.
When will we have the chance to see you in France?
I had the opportunity to visit Cognac for the last Cocktail Summit and I talked with a lot of French bartenders. And I remember one of them telling me: “Dale, when you come to France, don’t pretend you know more than French bartenders….” [laughs].
Images © Loran Dhérines