The last time we talked to the legendary Dale Degroff, we covered his early days at The Rainbow Room, eastern spirits and his Pimento bitters. The second half of this in-depth conversation focuses on his advice for bartenders to go from good, to great. (Link: Part I)
In looking at some of the influences around you, I was reading your wife’s bio. She credited you as a great influence on her art. What influence do you feel you’ve had on Jill’s art?
“First I dragged her around at cocktail events — she was not in the cocktail world — she started moving much more in the direction of caricature. There’s a lot of unusual faces in our business, to say the least, and it just captured her imagination. There’s a movement of German expressionism between the First and Second World Wars, there’s a lot of famous caricatures of the personalities and characters of the times, the kind of caricatures where you’re not looking necessarily to do a photographic image of somebody but you’re trying instead to look deeper into their personality.
I think that’s what she was referring to. This entry in the world of bars and saloons, a wonderful, colourful world, took her art into a different direction. Her book, Lush Life (2009), is about that, although it’s now out of print.”
10 years ago, when I was trying to learn how to bartend, I didn’t even know bartending was a profession. You could Google information, but it wasn’t how it is now, where Google will give you the recipe to any cocktail and its history. 10 years ago it was just being put together.
“Grab a dictionary and try to look up the word ‘mixology‘, and it ain’t there. It’s never been there.”
“It’s not even in the ‘Historical Dictionary of American Slang‘, which got almost every word. The place you find it is in 19th century books, although they couldn’t agree on the spelling. Sometimes you’d see ‘mixologist’, other times ‘mixicologist’. There is a 19th century book called The Mixicologist. I think Greg Boehm has a copy of that book. He’s been doing a lot of beautiful authentic reprints of 19th century and 20th century at Cocktail Kingdom.”
Cocktail Kingdom is doing such a great job of reintroducing a lot of these old books. It’s now on my list of things to do to make a Baker’s Booster from the Gentleman’s South American Companion. Prescription painkillers, lime juice, Angostura bitters in a blender… I don’t think that’s actually a good idea.
“Speaking of Painkiller, I ended up on an island called Jost Van Dyke, which is where the Painkiller was invented in the BVI. Nobody goes there because they don’t have a deep enough harbor for cruise ships, so if you want to get there, you get there with a small boat. On the beach there’s this incredibly wonderful bar called the Soggy Dollar. The guy there is the one who invented the Painkiller.
The bar is called the Soggy Dollar because people who go to the bar jump out their skiffs and all their money gets wet, so next to the bar there’s a clothesline where you can hang your soggy dollars to dry out.”
I had heard of the Soggy Dollar, but I’d never contemplated why it would be called that. That’s awesome! I also wanted to ask you about your son Leo, who’s a rising star in the craft cocktail world. Do you recall the first thing you consciously taught Leo behind the bar?
“When he was 16 or 17 years-old, I was teaching a classic cocktail class, and it was hands-on at a culinary school, the Peter Kump’sSchool, which is now called the Institute of Culinary Education — it’s become quite fancy. It was the only spirits class of any kind offered, and Leo was my setup guy. I taught him how to set up a station for the bartenders. He ended up getting a nickname, “Lemon Boy”, because he was squeezing so much juice. The thing I was promoting in the early years of my career was for bars to go back to the idea of using fresh lemon and lime juices. That was the one fundamental step you had to take first before doing anything else. It wouldn’t make sense for you to move forward in this area unless you were actually using quality ingredients. That was important for my setup, and I gave the students the right tools to make juices. Then Leo went to work as a prep cook, which is a really great training for him because he had to be saucier, learn knife skills, got to stand in a kitchen and see how it works. It was brilliant, I think every bartender should do that.”
I’d have to concur: Long ago, I went to school to become a chef, and though I never actually ended up becoming a chef, I see that training comes back every single shift I work on the bar.
“Totally. And you know, just understanding the way chefs approach flavors is essential. In French cuisine, you have 5 basic sauces, and once you understand that, it opens up a whole creative course.”
I still remember, it’s V-BETH: velouté, béchamel, Espanola, tomato and hollandaise.
“Yes, you take the Hollandaise and you add tarragon, then you got Béarnaise. Once you’ve mastered that, sky’s the limit in terms of flavor; that’s important for anybody dealing with flavors and tastes, but bartenders never approached it.”
“Post-Prohibition, prior to craft bartending, nobody thought about flavor and taste in the bar business; that was a kitchen thing.”
“You ask yourself about orange bitters versus cherry bitters in a cocktail, but back then they never even thought about that after Prohibition. There was a bit more of that kind of thought in the 19th century. In fact a lot of bartenders had to make their fruit syrups and their bitters they used to flavor their cocktails, so they definitely were into flavors. But when a product became commercialized, it meant you could buy it and it was a big step away from knowing how to make those things, and then Prohibition came. By the time the 60’s and 70’s were over, everything came out of a gun, and we were so far away from the kitchen when it came to understanding flavor. Even our liqueurs were made using artificial flavourings as opposed to real maceration. Not to say that we aren’t good with chemistry, we are, and we can achieve a pretty accurate flavor imitation, but there’s nothing quite like the real thing.”
Degroff suddenly changes tack,
“Did you see the new thing about fermentation, how to create flavor through the fermentation of yeasts? It’s really interesting. They’re developing genetically altered yeasts that can create flavors like vanilla, pomegranate, chocolate, coffee, and they’re able to say that it’s all natural flavors. In a way, that’s still artificial flavor, but it’s not artificial anymore since it was created by microorganisms!”
That’s interesting. The last thing I read on yeast was that chapter in Proof: The Science of Booze, by Adam Rogers, the editor of Wired, which I found was absolutely incredible. The fact that they can take yeasts to that level is amazing, especially considering that when you go back far enough yeast was something that killed us. But then we developed a relationship with it, and as Rogers puts it in his book, yeast is man’s best friend because we give it sugar and it poops out alcohol!
“There’s a really cool podcast on Gastropod (LINK) about artificial flavor where they talk about yeasts and how they’re being used to add flavor through fermentation. It’s worth checking out.”
What do you think makes a good bartender?
“It’s not really rocket science. It’s elemental things. The number one on the list is the understanding of service and hospitality, having your way with people, not having struggles with that. I took a couple of speaking and acting classes and it gives you a feeling of confidence when you’re with people, and it makes you understand — I don’t think there anything more important for bartenders — the ability to listen. By watching people’s body language and listening to what they say, you’ll be able to assess what you can do for them and find out what they need and want, and enjoy. That, after all, is the thing that brings people back to bars.”
“I’ve always said “I don’t go to bars, I go to bartenders.”
“If you’re a business person and you don’t have that kind of face and friend of the public, you’re at great risk. And then of course there’s the ability to execute. That’s the graceful handling of your tools, which comes with training, and being able to translate that into guest service and hospitality, which you gain with experience. In the beginning everyone is going to be flustered, there’s no way around it, you just got to pull your way through.”
“I find excessive friendliness always helps me.”
“People tend to be more forgiving the friendlier you are. I was never shy to say “I think I’ve made that one before but I can’t remember, it’s been a long time. Can you remind me how it goes?” The other approach to that is what I call “That’s How We Make It Here” syndrome. You ask for a Singapore Sling and the bartender makes you a rum punch, and you ask what’s that, and bartender says “That’s how we make it here!”. I always found that 90% of the time it happens with bartenders without proper training, and they lack confidence: they go right away to being brusque and aggressive because they’re embarrassed and they don’t know how to react. Poor management and poor training are usually responsible for these situations.”
You mentioned that you thought it was a good idea to either have some acting or public speaking training.
“Public speaking, acting and voice training, all of which I have, and they all make you feel so much more comfortable behind that bar, I mean physically, in every way. It changes how you communicate with people, and makes you understand you have to listen to people: that’s the point of acting. If you’re a natural actor, you listen and what you hear, it moves you in the right direction. If you’re an actor who’s only thinking about your next line, you’ll never move in the right direction. A good bartender is able to look deeper into to what a person is saying over the bar, and watch their body language.”
“Victor Bergeron, who created the Trader Vic’s chain, talks about reading his guests in his very first book, the Bartender’s Guide (1947); he talks about being able to see a guy walk through the door and knowing he’s gonna be a pain in the ass, and that was just from years of experience. It’s really funny to read his comments about this kind of stuff. Bergeron was mainly concerned about having some guys trying to pull one over on him, and being able to understand what’s happening to react quickly, but the same skill can be applied to improve hospitality, and for a guest perspective, it makes the experience of sitting at your bar so much better.”
The Painkiller, from Soggy Dollar Bar
3 oz Dark Rum
1 oz Fresh Orange Juice
2.5 oz Fresh Pineapple Juice
1 oz Coco Lopez
Combine ingredients in shaker. Add ice. Hard shake and strain into a tall glass over crushed ice.
Garnish: Fresh grated nutmeg over. Beyond that, have fun, it’s a tiki drink!