Interview: The Most Famous Bartender in the World, Dale DeGroff, is Coming to Sydney for One Night

With thanks to Dutch liqueur distillers De Kuyper, legendary bartender Dale DeGroff, the man behind the word “mixologist”, and creator of the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan, is coming to Sydney for one night only, to host a masterclass for a select few guests at an intimate event in the CBD’s Kittyhawk bar.

Every industry has its indisputable heroes, but few can be credited with affecting global change, and making the fruits of their professional toil a household name, quite the same as Dale DeGroff. The veteran bartender, and advocate (or should that be advocaat?) for great cocktails, just turned 70, and is showing no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

Ahead of his visit to Sydney next week, where he’ll present an event designed to entertain as much as it will educate, we were lucky enough to get Dale on the line from New York to talk about the cocktail revolution, popularising the Cosmopolitan, and how Madonna helped kick his career into overdrive, as arguably the most famous bartender in the world.

You’ve been to Australia before, about ten years ago. The drinking scene here has changed a lot in that time. I’m just wondering what your observations were last time you were here and what you expect to see different this time around?

Actually the very last time I was there I was working for the Match Bar group in London. We opened a bar in Melbourne, Match Bar, which was the name of the company in London. Which did bars that did very well there, but we chose an area in the sort of business district of Melbourne and the bar didn’t catch on. Lasted about a year and a half or two. I think we could have chose a better location, but it was a good bar. You know. It was Jon Downey; he was a pretty cutting edge guy from London. He had a lot to do with the craft movement in London.

And you obviously keep a firm eye on what’s happening with bars in the world. You’ve seen lots and lots have opened up here in Sydney specifically. Is that something you notice is happening everywhere around the world?

Oh my god, yeah. The internet is really levelled the playing field for young people who want to join this craft community and open bars that have a little bit different character than the standard run-of-the-mill sports bar or leisure bar so, yeah, it’s, every medium-sized city in the United States now has a couple of the, you can call them speakeasies if you want. But you know, craft bars.

I don’t want to go on too much about this next question as I know you get asked all the time, but I do want to talk a little bit about the Cosmo, because everyone knows it is your alma mater and, probably the first modern drink to really go viral, if that was a phrase you could use back thenWhat do you think it takes to make a cocktail go viral?

Oh I was lucky. I mean, I was in a really high profile property called the Rainbow Room and we were in the press a lot, and it just happened to be a very high profile event. It was the Sony post-Grammy party.

So we had quite a line up in our Rainbow Room. We had Frank Sinatra and Madonna and, yeah, it was quite a deal and each of the different celebrity bars were serving different drinks and Madonna’s bar was featuring the Cosmopolitan. That’s really how it got kind of world-wide notice, from our point of view anyway. It had already been famous in New York, and a guy named Toby Cecchini is pretty much considered the guy who invented the drink, although there may have been a young woman in Miami who actually named the drink, and Toby and I both had our own takes on the recipe, and mine had a flamed orange peel.

And that sort of became the franchise for that particular cocktail, ’cause everyone wanted to learn how to do it, you know. I was saying it had a lot to do with sort of opening up the cocktail again to a more general public. The cocktail kind of fell on hard times in our country, for reasons that are really too complicated to go into now, but [the Cosmopolitan] lead people back to you know, sort of fancy drinking, if you will.

When you were at Rainbow Room I know you were quite well known for using fresh ingredients, which a lot of bars weren’t doing at the time. Do you take any credit for the fact this is pretty much the standard now wherever you go?

Well, certainly in this country we started the ball rolling and by, in this country after Prohibition, because Prohibition was such a gangster experience, a lot of people shied away from the bar business and there wasn’t a lot of attention to quality detail, training, all those kinds of things, and actually what they did is they created shortcuts to kind of, they had to get unskilled labour basically, and one of those shortcuts was this artificial lemon lime sour mix so that people could make these drinks without having to have a lot of knowledge about how to balance juices and fresh ingredients and get a proper cocktail. So, by the sixties or so pretty much every bar in America, you could see this stuff and then by the seventies it was coming out of a gun at the bar and there were juices, you know.

So it was an opportunity working with a guy named Joseph Baum, who was a visionary, who actually started in the United States, the road back to a not just cocktails but prior to that just fine dining in a more American way, until then we had always been Francophiled. He also led us back to wine drinking and then through the Rainbow Room with his dishes with tradition he wanted cocktails with tradition and he helped also lead people back to cocktails, proper cocktails, as they were sort of in the Golden Era; the 1880s, ’90s, the turn of the century. Prior to Prohibition. He was my mentor.

I want to touch a little bit on the event next week, because you’re over here with De Kuyper. What can guests expect on the night?

Well, I’m gonna tell some stories.

I’m gonna make some, a couple of unusual drinks using some De Kuyper cordials, which are special. You know the Dutch really get it. The Americans are a little challenged when it comes to cordials and fruit-style cocktails. But the Dutch started it 350 years ago and have excelled in it and they always had access to real fruit, and I’m afraid to say that our cordials here are made with just a base alcohol and artificial ingredients, and I’m pleased and happy to be working with cordials that are made by fresh fruit infusion and you know, the proper way.

So I’m doing a Yuzu Margarita with their wonderful Triple Sec which I think will be a fun and a sort of probably good match with some of the canapes that are being served. It’s going to be flavoured with a shiso leaf, which you don’t usually find anywhere except under a piece of sashimi.

I remember reading an article about you about maybe twelve years ago. It would have been the first time that I ever read the word “mixologist”, which has now kind of inconveniently stuck for a lot of people. But you did adopt the moniker Master Mixologist. Do you think attitudes have changed much since you started using that term?

Well you know, in fact the discipline and the profession is what changed, the name was just a name. I’ll be honest with you, I gotta take the rap for that. I was doing a lot of deep research in 19th century books and the word appears quite often. Not just mixologist but mixicologist and a lot of variations on it and I looked up in the dictionary, and even in the New York Times dictionary, the word wasn’t in there in those days. It might be now but it wasn’t then, and I was intrigued by that and so I decided at the Rainbow Room I was going to title myself Master Mixologist, much to the hoots and hollers of my fellow bartenders, who derided me up and down for that.

But of course it really did exactly what I wanted it to do; it inspired a lot of questions and a lot of media attention, and so we did achieve in the end what we wanted. We were doing things differently than people were doing them anywhere else, so we wanted to draw attention to that fact.

Right. I think down here it sort of gave people the opportunity to see it as a proper job as opposed to just something they do in Uni.

It’s okay to be a bartender again, essentially, is the message.

Exactly. What are you most excited for when you get down under? I’m hoping you say Bundy rum.

I’m most excited about reconnecting with old friends and seeing that beautiful country again. I’m saddened by the loss of a couple of bars and happy to see the new ones and some old mates. I’m gonna get a little wider scope this time, ’cause I’ve never been to Perth, and I’ll be able to visit Perth. I’m excited about the events themselves because it gives me an opportunity to do what I do best and show off! So it’ll be a great reunion for me to be back in the country. It’s a beautiful country.

That’s very good to hear. While we’re on the topic, what do you think Australia’s biggest contribution has been to the industry, as a whole?

You know one of my favourite bartenders in Manhattan now is a former, the guy who created Bayswater Brasserie, which is sadly gone, but probably one of the most creative bartenders I’ve ever met. Just in terms of working with flavours. I’m intrigued by the early arrival, and I think probably it had a lot to do with your mates from London coming down and settling there and bringing the gospel with them.

We’re all alcoholics as well, so that helps.

Yeah, you guys were out front down there when other folks were still, and I know that the Australian bartenders you know, sort of brought the religion to southeast Asia and Hong Kong and other places like that. So it’s been, you’ve been sort of a centre in that part of the world of this rebirth of real ingredients, real recipes, variations of the classic, and that sort of a deal.

I was half expecting you to say Brian Brown in the movie cocktail.

It was an interesting movie! It had a lot to do with raising the profile a little bit. No question about it, you know.

I think so. There were a lot of blue drinks afterwards though. Probably too many.

Hey those drinks are back! I’m doing one.

Yeah, I’ve heard. I had one recently.

There’s a little science to it.

I want to touch a little bit on what you did for notoriety. There are really only two other guys of your ilk: Gary Regan and Dick Bradsell, may he rest in peace. There’s not a huge generation there of famous bartenders. Would you posit any names of who the next generation of the best bartenders in the world are?

Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s Charles Joly from Chicago, he’s the, two years, three years ago the winner of the world class competition. There’s Joaquin Simo he has a bar called Pouring Ribbons here in New York City, really white light in the firmament here, if you will. In London at Dandelyan, I don’t know if you know Dandelyan in London, it’s an extraordinary bar. They’re doing lot of interesting scientific stuff. Actually Alex, who was the last presenter, I think he was the last presenter for De Kuyper The Works, was an extraordinary bartender, an extraordinary talent. There’s just so many of them it’s hard to name them all, I mean.

You just have to say Tim Philips to keep everyone in this country happy, and then…

Yeah, Death & Co spawned a lot of folks who went and opened their own bars. Jim Meehan at PDT is a really, really bright guy up in the Portland, Oregon area. You know the name is escaping me right now. He’s a good friend of mine, but I’ll remember it before the end of this phone call*.

It’s just, there’s really a lot of bright lights out there. This is a profession again, where you can make a really good living and it’s back to the status that it had prior to Prohibition of being an actual profession where you could, you know, make decent money and where you needed some real training to excel. Not just six months and then you’re a bartender, which was the routine when I started. It took me five years to realise I wasn’t a bartender, you know, after thinking I was pretty hot shit after six months.

I want to know what you drink when you’re not drinking cocktails.

Well, I drink a lot of wine. I like beer but I don’t drink that much beer. Well, I’m seventy years old now, Joe, so I drink a lot of water, sorry to say, and my consumption of alcohol is much diminished from what it was when I was twenty years junior from my age now, so I still enjoy a good dry gin martini as often as I can. I’m a coffee drinker too. I’m a big coffee drinker.

If you could have one drink and that was it and then you knew it was gonna be the last, do you know what it would be?

Oh sure, yeah. It would be a gin martini with an olive and a twist, on the wet side, very cold.

I think I agree with you. In the eighties you were out and about travelling the world with Absolut Citron then followed by Ocean Spray, et cetera, you’ve pretty much made a career of that ever since. Do you think you’ll ever really retire?

I don’t think there’s any retiring in this business. I mean, if people like De Kuyper wanna hire me there’s no retirement in sight. I’m happy to continue, you know, keep moving; don’t stand still is my is my philosophy. So I don’t see retirement in the future. I really enjoy what I do so I don’t really feel like I’m working, Joe.

Yeah, really, I’m delighted. I’m delighted that I opened up this door because I don’t know if you’re aware but we don’t have the, the Holland, the type of cordials in The United States of America in the same way that you guys have them there and I’m kind of jealous. They’ve been kind with me and I’m delighted to be working with them. They’re really special products.

The De Kuyper that I’m tasting now is just absolutely over the top in terms of quality cordials. Cordials are so important, oh my god. I was looking back at the old cocktail books, and you went from 1862 like, there were thirty-two alcohol concoctions in the original Jerry Thomas but there were 150 cordial recipes and that was a function of the fact that there weren’t many brands out there, so bartenders were making their own. But by the time you got to the thirties, post-Prohibition, I looked in the Savoy book and there were 400 cocktails that were using cordials as a flavouring or as a base, so how they grew the industry and how they grew the cocktail is an extraordinary story, which I hope I will be telling when I’m down there.

Just finally, Dale, you’re talking about obviously uses and quality of the syrups and the cordials, is that the best way you would advise anyone making cocktails at home to lift their game? Or are there any other really obvious mistakes that people tend to make?

You know, as any chef will tell you, use the best ingredients you can afford, but when it comes to the kinds of cocktails I’m gonna be making and the kinds of cocktails you can make using these cordials from De Kuyper, you know we have, just like classic French cooking, the bar, the cocktail world has basic sauces. I mean, if you studied cooking at all and especially the classic French cooking you’d know that there are five core, basic sauces, upon which pretty much every French sauce is based; you know the Espagnol, the tomato, the Hollandaise, the — Anyway, we have this in the cocktail world and one of them, as you know from being a bartender, is the sour.

I mean, the sour is an extraordinary versatile formula, you know; one part sweet, one part sour, two parts strong. And just think of the worlds and worlds of cocktails. So I think people at home should think of it that way, as a formula, and just experiment. You know, that sweet … it can be syrup, it can be cordial, you know, any number of flavoured cordials. I think De Kuyper has ten or twelve of them down there in your market. So it’s an extraordinarily creative and interesting way to approach, and that’s just one of our sauces.

The Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, these are other sauces, if you will. I mean you know, you have a fortified wine, a strong spirit and a bitters. That opens up so many avenues in a Manhattan. In an Old Fashioned you have sugar and bitters. That’s the way they should look at it. Not so much as drink by drink, but get their hands dirty and have some fun!

I think that’s the best advice I’ve heard for cocktails in a long time. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today, Dale.

Thank you!

*Dale emailed me right after to say: “The name I was stuck on in Portland Oregon is Jeffrey Morgenthaler, author of the Bar Book and the others I wanted to mention are the two women who have kicked it in the new York Market: Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner, currently operating my two favorite bars Pegu Club and Clover Club, and the Australian Bartender who operated Bayswater Brasserie and currently operates Dante here in NYC (which I am later informed is owned by Sydney hospitality power-couple Nathalie Hudson and Linden Pride, with Will Oxenham as General Manager) is another bright light on the horizon…”

Dale DeGroff appears on behalf of De Kuyper at Kittyhawk in Sydney, located at 16 Phillip Lane. The event starts at 6:30, and includes three cocktails, as well as canapes throughout the evening. Tickets are strictly limited, are $70, and can be purchased via the link below. Don’t miss out!

Get Tickets Here

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