The surprising career advice king of cocktails Dale DeGroff has for bartenders

The resurgence of the humble dive bar excites legendary bartender Dale DeGroff, who hopes the profession's overly serious phase is drawing to a close.

"People were wanting to show all their knowledge all at once… instead of just being a host. The head was down and the ingredients were being assembled," he says.

"Now people have said, 'why can't we have shuffleboard and pool tables and ping pong tables and still have a craft [cocktail] bar?'"

"So what's happened in the United States is this whole rash of dive craft bars where they have all the fun stuff, which is to me exactly what bars always should be, you know – fun."

First taste

DeGroff – author of books including The Craft of the Cocktail – began his bartending career in Manhattan in the 1970s. He rose to prominence during a 12-year stint at the Rainbow Room, where he served cocktails to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Madonna.

He had an Australian venture in 2009, helping with the ill-fated launch of Match Bar & Grill in Melbourne CBD, a local outpost for the London-based Match Bar Group founded by Jonathan Downey.

"We didn't know the neighbourhood, simple as that," DeGroff reflects on the venue's subsequent closure.

"If Jonathan had come over here and lived in the neighbourhood for six months, hung out at the bars and watched the flow on the street, he would've never opened there. It's the most classic error you could make."

Expansion of an empire

The man dubbed 'King Cocktail' is credited with reinventing the bartending profession, coining the term 'mixology' and spurring a global revival of the cocktail that continues today.


"It's enormously changed beyond where I thought it would go, when I set out to get proper classic recipes and real ingredients and fresh ingredients," says DeGroff.

"I had no idea that we would be moving into such a culinary style of drink making and that we would be borrowing techniques from the kitchen.

"I mean you need a garde manger station to run a bar now, because there are so many things that need refrigeration – so many herbs, so many spices, so many vegetables. There's no room in our garnish trays anymore."

Breaking down the wall

DeGroff hasn't been at ease with all the aspects of modern bartending that he has helped inspire.

"I hate that bartenders are building walls between them and the guests, with all of their tinctures in bottles and bitters and things," he says.

But he says the return of the dive bar suggests the scene has matured and bartenders increasingly recognise hospitality is at the core of their profession.

"They're really pulling back and understanding what the bar business was… before the movement came out," he says.

A return to simpler times

He welcomes too the return of simpler cocktails, which he says represents the bar scene catching up with contemporary dining trends.

"The culinary revolution is what set the stage for the craft cocktail movement, because it created an audience of people in love with big flavours; people willing to try new and exotic stuff," he says.

"But I think in the beginning of the food thing it got a little weird. There was this 'nouvelle cuisine' which was created by a couple of guys in France, Gault and Millau.

"By the time it got played around with by a lot of young chefs you ended up with 12 coloured dots on the plate and one scallop in the middle… it got really silly."

A showman's game

Similarly, DeGroff says modern bartenders have taken their use of techniques and ingredients to extremes.

"Everybody was so excited to show off their chops, because there weren't any chops when this became a profession again," he says.

"They always want to throw three tinctures in, two bitters, three spirits and it's like, 'hold the phone here'?," he says.

"You know, first of all you're only going to taste three out of those seven or 10 ingredients in the cocktail. So why are you putting things in there that aren't even going to make a difference?

"I think now everybody's pulling back and saying, 'OK we did that'. Now let's think about this a little bit deeper. Where are we going with this?" says DeGroff.

To each their time

Touring Australia with De Kuyper, the Dutch liqueur and cordial brand, DeGroff says his bartending days are over.

"I can't shake anymore, man. I've got arthritis in both shoulders – I've got carpal tunnel, I can't even close my hand. My knees are shot. It's a young man's business, man," he says.

He will celebrate his 70th birthday later this year and has some advice for the bartenders of today seeking to ensure their longevity.

"If you can get your wife and your immediate family to be a part of the business, that's the best answer," he advises.

"Because a bar is like an infant – it cannot be left alone. It doesn't jive with family life, you know.

"At the Rainbow Room, I came in at noon. I closed the bar at two in the morning. Sometimes I had to come on Sundays too.

"I had two boys… for all the time when they were in school I never did homework with them and I never had dinner at home ever. We had dinner together when they came to the Rainbow Room as a family.

"I happen to be married to a woman who is extraordinary, you know. I should have been divorced a long time ago," he says.