While these days you can barely make it a few blocks without stumbling on a cocktail bar touting from-scratch bitters and hand-chipped ice, Dale DeGroff remembers a time when apathetic bartenders presided over soda guns and packages of sour mix. DeGroff, also known by his apt moniker King Cocktail, is recognized as a modern savior of mixology, having played a pivotal role in restoring proper, thoughtfully classic drinks to America’s bars and restaurants. Mixology wasn’t even in the lexicon when he started tending bar, but he became enamored with cocktails first written about in pioneering barman Jerry Thomas’ 19th-century book, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, and before long he was tweaking them with gourmet ingredients and weaning customers off their vodka martinis one by one.
The Rhode Island native—a James Beard Award winner who has penned two must-read bartending bibles of his own, The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail—dreamed of becoming an actor when he landed in New York in the late 1960s. He worked in the mailroom of Lois Holland Callaway, the advertising agency his best friend’s brother ran. One of the clients was culinary impresario Joe Baum’s Restaurant Associates. And that, says DeGroff, “was where it all started. Those were my Mad Men days. Ronnie would take us out to all the great places Joe had opened—like the original Charley O’s, in Rockefeller Plaza, where I had my first mimosa with Cointreau floating on top. It was the beginning of my education.”
Soon, he would be a waiter at Charley O’s, where on a whim he worked as a bartender at a Gracie Mansion event because “the union guys had no interest in doing it, loading and unloading the truck for no money. So I wrote out eight popular drinks on index cards and learned very quickly.” Serendipity also landed him a plum gig at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. “I drove my 1969 Dodge Dart there, walked in, and found a big, red-faced Irishman who I could tell didn’t want to be working. He was angry he was on the day shift because they lost a bartender, so he hired me on the spot and put me on the next day. There were no interviews with HR; in fact, in 1978 there wasn’t even HR. It was called personnel,” DeGroff remembers.
Learning his way around a bar filled with bottles he’d never before seen, the determined GeGroff returned to New York and worked for Baum—who remembered him from eating in all his restaurants—at Aurora. This led to a 12-year run, starting in 1987, creating epicurean-influenced cocktails with fresh citrus and big ice cubes—considered groundbreaking at the time—at Baum’s storied Rainbow Room, high atop Rockefeller Center. Blackbird, which DeGroff opened with protégé Audrey Saunders, now of Pegu Club fame, followed.
Today, DeGroff keeps busy training future barkeeps through the Beverage Alcohol Resource program, promoting his herbaceous Pimento Aromatic Bitters, consulting for brands, bringing his one-man storytelling and song hybrid On the Town! to bars, and appearing regularly at events like the Berlin Bar Convent and Portland Cocktail Week.
As for that new generation of talented, gung-ho bartenders—including his son Leo, who can be found at Apartment 13 in New York’s East Village—DeGroff couldn’t be more excited. “It’s such an inspiring, loving community,” he says. “We’ve come so far.”
Certainly, not without his own mighty push. Here, King Cocktail reminisces about the 10 drinks that helped him evolve from novice to icon.