Dale DeGroff on Cocktails, Community, and Culture

From the mayor's mansion to the iconic Rainbow Room, DeGroff shares some of his favorite bartending memories.

Dale DeGroff presents Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Schumann at the 2017 Spirited Awards. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography. Dale DeGroff presents Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Schumann at the 2017 Spirited Awards. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

In honor of Tales of the Cocktail's 15th anniversary, Tales founder Ann Tuennerman is highlighting fifteen bartenders whose lives and careers have been impacted by attending the event, and whose work has elevated the industry as a whole. In this edition, a man who needs no introduction (but we'll do one anyway): the one-and-only Dale DeGroff (aka King Cocktail). DeGroff developed his talent at New York's iconic Rainbow Room in the 80s, is credited for kicking off the ever-evolving cocktail revolution, is the winner of two James Beard Awards, author of "The Essential Cocktail" and "The Craft of the Cocktail," a partner in the award-winning Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), and the founding president of the Museum of the American Cocktail here in New Orleans (just to name a few). This year, he and protégé (and legend in her own right) Audrey Saunders were the 2017 Ambassadors for Tales of the Cocktail. And now, without further ado...

Where were you born and raised?

On the road with Dad, a Navy Pilot. Born at the Naval Air Station in Quonset Point, Rhode Island.

What attracted you to becoming a bartender in the first place?

Life in the New York City bars ... I wanted to be part of it.

Was it planned, or was it a temporary gig that evolved into a career?

I'll quote John Lennon here: "Life is what happens when we are making plans."

What and where was your first bartending job?

Gracie Mansion (the Mayor's residence in NYC) ... no sh*t, it's a great story but there isn't space here to tell it.

Was there a moment when you decided that bartending would be your career?

When the piano player at the Hotel Bel-Air named Bud Herrmann said to me at closing one night: "I know you're really into this acting thing, Dale, but I think you are pretty good at this bartending stuff." I couldn't get it outta my mind after that comment.

Was your family supportive of your decision to pursue bartending?

When I was 18, my father took me aside and said, "I think you have learned how to be a human being and from here on out, your mother and I will step back and you can make your own decisions."

For someone who wants to pursue bartending as a career, what top 3 tips would you offer?

If you don't look forward to your next shift (most of the time), then you need to find something [else] you like doing. In the first couple years, just assume that everything you think you know is wrong and you need to look deeper. The team you work with can elevate the experience and you can do the same for them.

How did you first learn about Tales of the Cocktail?

Ann Tuennerman called me and invited me to the very first one.

Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders as the 2017 Tales Ambassadors. Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders as the 2017 Tales Ambassadors. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

Where there any challenges you had to overcome to attend Tales the first time (financial, logistical, etc.)?

How to make Southern Comfort the center of my universe for two days.

Kindly describe your first Tales experience and what it meant to you.

We were just a dozen presenters and the ones who weren't already friends became friends. Those of us who were old friends became even better friends. We could all sit around the bar at the Hotel Monteleone — and there were still stools left. We tortured poor Marvin, the night bartender, with our extraordinarily esoteric cocktail orders.

What was it like to be immersed in the community of bartenders and cocktail luminaries from all over the world? Did it confirm bartending as your calling?

That happened a long time ago ... way before Tales. The most fun was sharing our New Orleans favorites with our pals who were experiencing the city for the first time. It feels funny to refer to New Orleans as "the city." It's really not. It is a culture that simply doesn't exist anywhere else in these United States. New Orleans requires everyone to make an adjustment, to make a conscious effort to step out of the state of mind that you arrived with and open a new room up there. It's a big room that will fill slowly with the delights and sounds and foods and smells, but most of all, it's the individuals you meet who seem to move through life with an alternate compass that doesn't point to true north but across the table to you.

Kindly describe your top 3 favorite moments from Tales.

Impossible. My memory doesn't work so well ... not like that anyway! Not in snapshots, but in a movie that just keeps looking forward. Reflection on the past is good, I suppose, for those of us who can bring it back with some sense of clarity or accuracy. I'm a storyteller and I tend to enhance the story to fit the occasion.

Kindly describe any awards or recognition you received at Tales.

I think you have that list already : -)

Kindly describe your top behind the bar experience where you impacted or inspired a guest?

I was asked by a guest at the Hotel Bel-Air if I could make a fresh margarita ... I couldn't at the time and the ganglia and synapses just started multiplying and it took several years to untangle the whole mess and process how to get it right.

How has it energized your career overall and what opportunities have flowed as a result of your winning?

I can't think of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between awards and my life ... I do know that it was a wonderful feeling to be celebrated by the people with whom, and in some case for whom, I worked all these years.

Ever the consummate host, Dale brings a drink to award winner Charles Schumann at the 2017 Spirited Awards. Ever the consummate host, Dale brings a drink to award winner Charles Schumann at the 2017 Spirited Awards. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

Kindly describe any key professional relationships that were forged at Tales through networking with fellow bartenders, spirits luminaries and brand managers.

The best.

How would you sum up Tales to an aspiring bartender who is new to the profession?

Many came and were so affected by the experience that they came back and never left. It is a life-changing experience ... but you have to make some careful choices about what kind of changes.

What is your go-to cocktail when you go out?

My session cocktail is a dry gin martini, but that is often altered to fit the place ... when in Rome ...

What is your favorite cocktail to make for friends and family?

Irish Coffees.

Ann Tuennerman Founder of Tales of the Cocktail, Ann Tuennerman is a serial entrepreneur focused on hospitality.

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