Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Dale DeGroff. If you've never heard of DeGroff, you'll be surprised to know that he has changed your life. Remember that basil gimlet you enjoyed at the bar last week? You can thank Dale for that. Or what about that perfectly poured martini? Dale's responsible for that, too. Known to food insiders as the King of Cocktails, Dale DeGroff is single-handedly responsible for the renaissance of classic cocktails. Back in 1980s New York, at a time when the majority of bars served drinks made from overly-sweet mixes, Dale was mixing drinks with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients and creating cocktails based on preprohibition recipes. To find out what the master has to say about cocktail trends and to see who he thinks is the best bartender in America today,
PartySugar: What do you consider yourself? A bartender, bar chef, mixologist?
Dale DeGroff: Retired. Now I am a teacher and an author.
PS: What do you consider your signature drink?
DD: The Ritz cocktail, which was named in tribute to the classic champagne cocktail and featured in Playboy magazine. The whiskey smash, which is currently on menus from London to Australia. Bobby Flay serves it at his restaurants. That one was based on a 19th-century drink, but I changed the name. The Fitzgerald is another one.
PS: What qualities make a good bartender?
DD: Speed, accuracy, friendliness, a certain passion and love affair with life. You have to be confident and a chameleon, and you have to love it.
PS: Who are the best bartenders in America?
DD: The list is long in terms of exclusivity. There's lots of guys who can make amazing, culinary drinks, but Doug at PJ Clarks, handles that crowd with such ease, speed, and accuracy. That bar is packed every night and he makes a good cocktail. He doesn't do special cocktails, but he could learn everything those other guys do in exactly a month.
PS: What's your ultimate hangover remedy?
DD: Don't start drinking or don't stop drinking. Aspirin. Nothing beats a milkshake and a hamburger. Some people say soaking your feet in oatmeal works.
PS: What's the next big thing? In cocktails and spirits?
DD: We are in the middle of the next big thing! The overall idea is that we've taken the cocktail out of the beverage category and turned it into something culinary. Bartenders have to look at their bars like a chef would look at his kitchen. They are looking at their ingredients like a chef looks at his ingredients. You've got to go to the cupboard, go to Whole Foods and buy what is fresh and in season. I'm really into pepper jelly, spices, and herbs. Pisco is going to be big. Anything from South America really. Brown liquors are on the rise. The geeky bartenders are making drinks with bourbon and rye. Rhum agricole. Tequila, anything Latin really. Sherry is popping up in cocktails everywhere.
PS: What's your advice to the home mixologist?
DD: Buy the best, freshest ingredients you can afford from the liquor down to the mint. Follow recipes! Bartending is like baking, there is a science to it. My drinks really work. Make it fun, get your guests involved. Stock your bar with gin, an old-fashioned like Beefeater and a new wave like Plymouth. Vodka, cognac, rum, rhum agricole. Three whiskeys: scotch, bourbon, rye. Tequila: blanco and reposado. Cointreau , good vermouth. Don't buy domestic vermouth, get an Italian red and a French white.