Dale DeGroff muses on
the Art of Creating the
for the Holidays...
or any 'ol time!
By Ellise Pierce
Sitting on a steel bar stool in Fressen in New York’s meatpacking district at 6:30 one evening, Dale DeGroff dunks one of his muscular fingers into his martini glass and fishes out the curl of lemon. “It was a brilliant effort,” he says, shaking his head, “but see all this white stuff?” DeGroff grimaces and sets the bitter pith next to his half-finished cocktail. Arguably the most famous bartender in the country, DeGroff has mixed Caipirinhas for Martha Stewart, Planters Punch for The Today Show’s Ann Curry, and sour apple martinis for Natalie Cole at Rupert Murdoch’s 70th birthday party. As the former barkeep for the Rainbow Room, DeGroff makes no bones about what began the country’s current cocktail craze, which single handedly converted the Chardonnay crowd into Cosmopolitan drinkers, and spawned lines of barware and accessories from Pottery Barn to Target. "Well", he says, "I'll take some credit for it.
When DeGroff opened the newly renovated Rainbow Room in 1987, he created a "cocktail menu" reminiscent of those found in supper clubs during the first half of the century. Imitators soon followed." "All of a sudden, around Manhattan, I'm seeing these classic cocktail menus popping up- with my drinks! - and the thing just took off." As a result of the popularity of all things cocktail, the holiday cocktail pary has reemerged too, offering an easier alternative to the dinner party. "You don't need to get too fancy-- just boogie and have fun...and send out for food- have it delivered. This is not rocket science" says DeGroff. His words come out fast and smooth, in the rhythm of a well-shaken drink.
DeGroff, 53, with salt and pepper hair, wears broken-in winged tips, navy slacks, a checked shirt, and a navy sports coat - his usual outfit when he's on the customer's side of the bar- and his wooly black eyebrows arch up like half moons when he laughs, which is often. This will be an evening of showing how simple cocktail-making can be -for the holidays, or any time at all.
On this particular night DeGroff has stopped into Fressen for a party, then he says, "We're going to a really cool joint called Tonic."
DeGroff, who has been behind a bar for nearly three decades, has amassed a collection of more than 400 books on the subject including the first edition of How To Mix Drinks: The Bon Vivant's Companion, by the patriarchal Jerry Thomas-- a DeGroff predesessor of sorts, credited with stirring up interest in mixed drinks during the Victorian era.
For the past year, as a consultant for the Distilled Spirits Council, DeGroff has traveled to private events at some of the nation's poshest restaurants evangelizing about the simplicity of the cocktail to VIPs and other "opinion formers' The key to any well made drink, says DeGroff, is the same as the secret to great food. "If you have fresh food and throw it on a grill, it usually turns out pretty good. If you have fresh fruit and fresh ingredients and play with them a little bit, and add a a shot of spirits, you're going to get the same simple, wonderful thing." "Cocktails are our heritage...our gift to the world of beverage. The French gave us wine, the Italians gave us liqueurs, the Russians and eastern Europeans gave us vodka. All of these guys came to America and brought their traditions with them, and we mixed it all up together in one glass and it became the cocktail."
At nearly 1 a.m., DeGroff
sits on one of Tonic's century-old barstools, one foot propped on another
stool, with his elbow leaning on the rich, wooden bar that stretches out behind
him. Closing time. The lights have been dimmed and a few white candles flicker
in the near darkness.
"It's a quarter to three/No one's in the bar
but you and me/So set 'em up Joe...
I'll have one for my baby/And one more for the road".
DeGroff sings while snapping his fingers in two-four time. Tonight he's done his part to spread the gospel of the can-do cocktail. Debunking the cliche, he takes another sip of grappa before walking out of tonic and hailing a cab. For DeGroff, who is headed to a bar in the East Village where a friend works, the night has only begun.