It’s not an understatement to say modern bartending wouldn’t exist in its current form without Dale DeGroff. From 1987 to 1999, he was the Rainbow Room’s head bartender and manager. His efforts led to the revival of classic cocktails and the preservation of technique. It also restored the image that bartenders are skilled craftspeople and ambassadors of culture.
In 1969, the Rhode Island native moved to New York City as an actor’s assistant. DeGroff’s bartending journey began in earnest at Charley O’s, an Irish pub created by famed restaurateur Joe Baum, where he spent time before eventually talking his way into an event shift when another bartender failed to arrive. After a brief stint at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, DeGroffBaum approached him in 1985, offering to take over as his head bartender at Aurora. Once there, however, it was hard to leave. DeGroffThe new venture was quickly a puzzle.
“He tasked me with a bunch of odd requests,”” DeGroff. “He wanted a 19th-century beverage program: no soda guns, no mixes, classic recipes. We were talking about a small fine-dining French restaurant with a two-star Michelin chef and all these wines from Burgundy and Champagne, and I was a little confused because it didn’t seem like it made sense.”
He realized why after six months. Baum was using DeGroff’s cocktail experiments at Aurora as an audition for a bigger project: running the bar program at the soon-to-be -reopened Rainbow Room, an iconic nightclub dating to the 1930s, which Baum was restoring and planned to launch in 1987.
“I was being used as kind of a lab rat, putting together this 19th- and [early] 20th-century cocktail program,”” DeGroff. “And when I said I wanted the job at the Rainbow Room, that’s when [Baum] introduced me to the idea of getting a book called How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas. I promptly went to Fifth Avenue and tried to buy it, except that Joe didn’t tell me it was written in 1862.”
After DeGroff secured the job, he and Baum created a cocktail menu for the Rainbow Room populated by a collection of forgotten classics he’d found in books. The Rainbow Room’s original drink menu included drinks such as the Manhattan, Margarita Margarita Martini, Negroni and Pink Lady. DeGroff says, “at the time, these were all totally new to everybody I was hiring. Thirty-four bartenders needed months of preparation, and we were packed from day one.”
The Rainbow Room, DeGroff’s leadership, set the standard for bars of the era. Often imitated but rarely matched, his drinks program reinvigorated the cocktail’s place in modern culture and shaped the decade that followed, inside and out of the bar.
“It was about four years in[to the Rainbow Room reopening], ’92 or ’93, when I saw a Between the Sheets pop up on a menu in Greenwich Village, which surprised me,”” DeGroffRefers to one of his classic cocktails from the original Rainbow Room menu. “But [it showed that], little by little, the market was changing. Drinks companies were thrilled to see this happening, so they started coming out with more premium products.”
The spread of the Rainbow Room’s cocktails and style of bartending, which relied famously on fresh ingredients and a higher standard of quality, was a prelude to a larger cultural shift DeGroff had set in motion.
“The Cosmopolitan had an enormous role to play,”” DeGroff. The drink is not their original creation. DeGroffHelped to create a recipe that used fresh lime juice and Cointreau and citron vodka instead of syrups and cordials. This recipe exploded in popularity after Madonna was photographed sipping it in the Rainbow Room at a Grammy Afterparty. “Showbusiness and television and media got into it, and then Sex and the City came along and, being so cocktail-heavy, it just turned into a wave that caught on.”
“Journalists used to get in touch for these stories like, ‘Is the cocktail revolution really happening?’”” DeGroff. “And I’d go through the Libbey glass catalog, where suddenly there were like, 150 more options for cocktail glasses, and would tell the writer, ‘Just ask a salesperson how many glasses they’re selling.’ ”
Later, it was this need to glassware that gave rise to another cornerstone. DeGroff’s legacy: the reintroduction of what he called the Nick & Nora glass.
“We wanted glasses with tradition,”” DeGroff. “So, I went to this glass and silver house called Minners in Midtown Manhattan, and said I was looking for the glass that Nick and Nora Charles used in the old Thin Man movies. And I’m looking through an old catalog and found it as a glass called the Little Martini. The problem was, it didn’t exist anymore, so they ended up having to build a new mold in order to make it.”
Thought DeGroff’s iteration of the Rainbow Room closed in 1999, his leadership and work in the bar community continued. He mentored a new wave of bartenders who went on to open the next generation of New York cocktail bars, notably Julie Reiner’s Clover Club and Leyenda, and Audrey Saunders’s Pegu Club, which in turn helped to usher in the current era of craft bartending and have inspired countless followers.
DeGroff’s work has expanded beyond the stick. As part of the National Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans, he established the Museum of the American Cocktail (Mountain of the American Cocktail) in 2004. He also founded Beverage Alcohol Resource, an education program offering certification and training in cocktails and spirits. His three books—The Craft of the Cocktail (2002), The Essential Cocktail (2008), and The New Craft of the Cocktail (2020)—have become required reading, and can be found on shelves behind bars worldwide.
However, despite his rich legacy, DeGroffHe keeps his eyes on the future. And it’s one from which he’s drawing his own inspiration.
“There are some things that now exist that never existed before,”” DeGroff. “Number one is the community. There wasn’t a community before. When you were behind the bar in those days, you had your cash register and the other bartender had his register, and you didn’t go near each other’s drawers. Then you’d get a call from the owner in the morning saying, ‘This is the fourth weekend in a row Phil’s doing $3,500 on his drawer and you’re only doing $2,000, what the fuck’s going on here?’
“It was a very cutthroat world,” DeGroff continues. “We were friendly, we’d have shots at each other’s bar, put a $20 [bill] down and drink for free all night, but there was no community. There was no Speed Rack. There was no Helen David [Relief Fund] giving money to people in the bar business who have breast cancer. There was none of that shit happening. That’s all coming out of the craft cocktail movement.”
It’s a community that, even if he didn’t know it in the early days of the Rainbow Room, DeGroffHe played an important role in the building of this country. His efforts laid the foundation for bartending as an occupation, and created a space for others.
For those who’ve carved out longtime careers in the bar industry, Dale DeGroffThis is the person to be praised.
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