All hail 'King Cocktail'

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 8/28/2014

Craft-cocktail trailblazer Dale "King Cocktail" DeGroff on the mixology movement.

Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff talked about bitters as he served Manhattans to a bunch of local bartenders.
Kyndell Harkness

Imagine a wretched world where Sidecars and whiskey sours tasted like they’d been shaken with lemon Pine-Sol and strained through worn-out socks. It was called the ’80s (so we hear).

That is, until Dale DeGroff helped pull us out of an epoch of insipid drinks and spawned the cocktail revival that continues to flourish. In the big-hair decade, DeGroff was hired by prominent New York restaurateur Joseph Baum to create a bar program for a small restaurant devoid of abominable from-the-gun sour mixes and bringing back classics.

Considered a bartending trailblazer, DeGroff has since written several books, nabbed a James Beard award and launched his own bitters line. Southern Wine & Spirits recently brought the man known as King Cocktail to town to lead a tasting event. We caught up with him after the Manhattan-fueled fete.


Q: At what point did you sense you were doing something at the Rainbow Room that would change the game?

A: I knew before then, because I had worked for two years at that small fine-dining restaurant called Aurora for Joe. We were able to put this program in place in a small way, the three bartenders and me.


Q: Did you see other places catching on?

A: In that era, the ’80s, there weren’t cocktail menus. What we were doing hadn’t been done since right after Prohibition because it was hard to find any skilled labor after Prohibition. By the ’70s, when everybody had sour mix coming out of a gun, cocktails tasted so bad that nobody bothered.


Q: Over the years, have there been cocktail trends that you’ve rolled your eyes at?

A: You know what, I learned my lesson with the Blood and Sand cocktail. When I saw Scotch, orange juice, sweet vermouth and Cherry Heering, I thought, “Get out of here!” until I shook one up finally, because I saw it in so many classic books. Sure enough, that was the end of my prejudging anything before I tasted it.


Q: What do you think the future holds for the cocktail movement?

A: [Molecular gastronomy chef] Ferran Adrià — that times 10. They’re doing it beverage side now. Go see Charles Joly at the Aviary, he’s the future. That’s part of the future. But I don’t say that meaning that the classic cocktails are going to go away ever. They withstood 150 years of trial and error. Who knows which of our modern classics will have that kind of long life?


Q: Do you have a go-to cocktail?

A: The gin martini, straight up with an olive and a twist.


Q: What is it about that drink?

A: I tell you, it wasn’t always. I got drunk on gin in college. I was in a rock ’n’ roll band and the leader of this band, I was hero-worshiping this guy. He drank warm gin out of the flask. So, I started drinking warm gin out of the flask, I got so sick. I didn’t want to see gin ever again in my life. But when I became a bartender I said, “Wait a minute, this is not going to work. I’m going to have to revisit this gin martini thing on the level.”


Q: You were an actor before you got into bartending.

A: I’m so glad I was.