Dale DeGroff
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Dale DeGroff

Liquor Legend 2022

It’s not an understatement to say modern bartending wouldn’t exist in its current form without Dale DeGroff. His work as head bartender and manager of the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center from 1987 to 1999 led to a resurgence of classic cocktails and technique that persists today and rehabilitated the image of bartenders as skilled craftspeople and cultural ambassadors.

The Rhode Island native came to New York City as an aspiring actor in 1969, but 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 stint in Los Angeles working at the Hotel Bel-Air, DeGroff was approached by Baum in 1985 with an offer to return to New York and take a job as head bartender at his new restaurant, Aurora. But once there, DeGroff quickly found the new endeavor puzzling.

Dale DeGroff
DeGroff with a Martini.

Daniel Krieger

“He tasked me with a bunch of odd requests,” says 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.”

After about six months, he realized why. 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,” says 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 original drink list of the Rainbow Room reads like what is now required knowledge for any modern bartender, featuring drinks like the Manhattan, Margarita, Martini, Negroni, Pink Lady, and Sidecar, among others, but as 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, under 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,” says DeGroff, referring to one of the classic cocktails on his 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.”

Dale DeGroff mixing up drinks at the Rainbow Room with Salvatore Calabrese
DeGroff mixing up drinks at the Rainbow Room with Salvatore Calabrese.

Jerry Ruotolo

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,” says DeGroff. While not the originator of the drink, DeGroff helped to codify a recipe that used fresh lime juice, Cointreau, and citron vodka rather than syrups and cordials, which exploded in popularity in 1996 after the Associated Press published a photo of Madonna sipping one 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?’” says 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.’ ”

It was this need for glassware that later yielded another cornerstone of DeGroff’s legacy: the reintroduction of what he called the Nick & Nora glass.

“We wanted glasses with tradition,” says 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.”

Though 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. He founded the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, as part of the National Food & Beverage Museum, in 2004, and was a founding partner in Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), an education program offering training and accreditation in cocktails and spirits. His three booksThe 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.

Dale DeGroff with The Craft of the Cocktail book
DeGroff has authored three seminal cocktail books.

Daniel Krieger

But despite his storied legacy, DeGroff keeps an eye 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,” says DeGroff. “Number one is the community. There was no 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, DeGroff had an integral part in helping to build. His work laid the modern foundation for bartending as a profession, creating a space for others to further what he started.

For those who’ve carved out longtime careers in the bar industry, Dale DeGroff is the person to thank.