If there's any person we'd ask for advice on mixing a drink or throwing a party, it'd be the man who's known as the King of Cocktails. At 70 years old, Dale DeGroff is one of the most respected figures in bartending, with a string of credits to his name, from shaking up America's cocktail scene in the dark days of the 1970s and '80s to popularising the Cosmopolitan and spreading the term mixology. Many of the things we look for in great bars today can be traced back to the drinks DeGroff was mixing in Manhattan decades ago, most famously at the Rainbow Room from 1987 to 1999.
During his Australian tour last month with De Kuyper Liqueurs, DeGroff sat down with Charlie Lehmann, co-owner of Sydney's Ramblin' Rascal Tavern, to talk about the art of making a delicious drink and share a few tales from his time in the business.
Charlie: Let's talk about home bartending. What are the key things we need if we were to replicate at home what people do in a bar?
Dale: Make yourself a little bar, number one.
What do you mean? The kitchen bench isn't fine?
Well you could do that but it's more fun to make yourself a little bar that's your own. [Here he measures out with his hands the size of a bar, suggesting it to be one metre deep and almost two metres long.]
Is it necessary to have quality ice?
The beautiful thing about home refrigerators is that they actually make big ice cubes. And they're solid because they stay in there a long time. You're pretty fixed up for ice if you've got a big refrigerator. You can always go buy a block of ice if you're having a party and then carve whatever you want. You can chip off blocks and smash them in a Lewis bag if you want to make Juleps. I make Martinis so I have a freezer full of Martini glasses ready to go.
Oh yeah, that goes without saying.
Twist or with an olive?
Twist and olive. Unless I go to a bar and then I'll get an onion. I told you why didn't I?
No but you can now.
A lot of bars have those plastic trays with all their garnish in them and they've got the twists and the olives and a ding and a ding and a ding, but it doesn't have that one extra container for the onions. Where do you think the onions are?
I have no idea.
They're in the refrigerator, cold like they're supposed to be. But the olives are always dead warm and the guy always puts three. What's meant to be an ice-cold Martini becomes dead warm just like that.
But you don't keep your gin in the freezer - ever - because you want the gin to melt the ice, that's the idea. You want that dilution. If you've ever gone to Dukes Hotel in London where they've got the famous Martini, they roll over the cart and their gin is frozen and the vermouth is icy cold and the glass is cold and they don't even put any ice. They just pour it all together. That's not a Martini and I can't drink it.
So what would you call it?
A shot of gin and a shot of cold vermouth. There's no dilution whatsoever because it never touches ice. Any master distiller will tell you that when booze hits ice and creates water it creates flavour.
You know who said it best was the guy who wrote The Violet Hour. He said that a Martini is like a kiss: you can't save it in the refrigerator. And it's also an urban thing. You can't take a Martini on a camping trip; it just fucking doesn't work. You need all the equipment around and someone else to make it for you because you can't make your own Martini.
Yeah, it's like making a sandwich for yourself: it tastes better when someone else makes it for you.
If we're sitting at home on a Saturday night and we've got our home bar, you're entertaining me and we're watching the game, what are we drinking?
I would probably make a whisky punch, which I like to do because then I don't have to get up every five minutes and make another drink for your sorry ass. I'd put American rye whisky, some kind of cherry liqueur – see it's based on a colonial George Washington punch and he had cherry juice. So it's rye whisky, cherry liqueur, Madeira wine because that's what they drank in colonial times and then a lemon and orange shrub. It's pretty awesome. You can drink it all night long because, you know, punches are pretty low in alcohol because you put a lot of water in them.
You can't start a civil war. Is there anything that you want to check out while you're in Australia?
Well we're going to an island I hear is pretty cool that has a lot of little birds running around on it that you are supposed to enjoy. What are they called?
That's called New Zealand and they're kiwis.
Are they little like chickens or something? What are they? Are they like little wallabies?
A member of Dale's press team: They're quokkas.
C: It's like half way between a wallaby and a rodent.
D: They're friendlier than kangaroos.
C: Yeah, they take photos with people.
D: They don't kick you.
C: Are there any bars that you want to go and check out?
I want to go to the bar that Peter Hollands used to work at which is called 1806 [in Melbourne] and I want to go to Bowery [a Brisbane bar].
You've done this for 40-plus years. King Cocktail is what the people have called you. Or that's what you've called yourself.
I can tell you the story. There was a woman who was first a copy girl at the New York Post and then she got a byline because she managed to get herself to the roof of the World Trade Centre towers when this toy manufacturer climbed up to the top. He created the clamp that went in between the little things and climbed all the way to the top of the towers and by the time he got to the top and the cops were waiting for him, she was standing right there. She took down her interview with him and then she got her byline in the Post. Then they put her on the criminal beat and then she went up to A Current Affair as a story developer and she even went live. She was fearless. She followed [Manuel] Noriega to a farm before he got captured and she went right up to him and said I want your side of the story. He fell in love with her and gave her a big machete that said "defender of Panama" before he got arrested.
Anyway, she came to my bar because it was across the street from the old Post offices. She'd come after a really tough day and say "just give me something off the menu" and I'd give her a drink. "That was really good. Give me something else, a different one". So I'd give her a different one. That was good too and then she'd have another one and she'd say, "You know you're the king of cocktails" and I said, "That's it! That's fucking it, I'm done".
Flip the table, we're done. So, what have you learnt over your 40-plus years that's stuck with you?
Being good-natured gets you a long way in this business. I was a bartender for five years before I realised I wasn't a bartender. I ain't kidding. I thought I was a hot shit after six months. I was like this is easy man: highballs, lowballs, cab, chardonnay, this is like nothing, right? And then five years in I'm like holy shit, I don't know anything. People gave me the benefit of the doubt; they would even give me the recipes for the drinks they wanted. It goes a long way, being a good-natured sap.
I've got to ask you about what you wrote online the other day about [London bar] Dandelyan after a journalist in the Wall Street Journal wrote about one of their cocktails [the Nitrate Manhattan, made with whisky, tequila, rhubarb beer, herbs and sheep's wool lanolin]. She said "The flavors are challenging – smoky and bitter, with a subtle ovine funk – but, then, so is the concept behind them: the drink is intended as a study of symbiotic agricultural systems, exemplified by hops, sheep and rhubarb production in 19th-century Yorkshire".
I just wrote one little line. I said this sounds like a scientific paper. What happened to deliciousness? And everybody went totally bananas.
But you and I haven't tasted it, it could taste good. No?
I'll give you that, although I doubt it. There was a Norwegian bartender I know who worked in London at the Match Bar Group who wrote, "Has anybody who's made a comment yet tasted this drink?" And that was a legitimate comment. But I wasn't commenting on Dandelyan. I know those guys are wonderful and geniuses. I was making a simple comment on what it is that inspires us to make these drinks and I thought that that was a little far-fetched.
When does it get too ridiculous?
You just can't take it too seriously that's all. Because, after all, we're not saving lives, it's not brain surgery, we're not saving the world, we're not protecting democracy – we're making drinks. That's a fun activity that I wish more people who were saving democracy were actually involved in.