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TALES OF THE COCKTAIL SPECIAL
INTERVIEW BY MANUEL TERRON
It may sound like a tall tale, how some bartenders rose to the top of the bar culture to become the godfathers of mixologists and oracles that they are today.
ale degroff, aka King Cocktail , developed his techniques and talent while tending bar at renowned establishments like new York’s Rainbow Room, where he took the crowd by storm in the 1980s with his recreations of great classic cocktails. The illustrious master mixologist is also the author of The Essential Cocktail and founding president of The Museum of the American Cocktail in new orleans. What does it take to become a bartender legend? legends are things other people create around you, the only thing that might make you end up being called a legend by other people is that you’re passionate; you enjoy what you do, [you] get better and learn about it as you go along. Yet there are extraordinary bartenders out there [whom] nobody calls legends; they go on and do their job day to day for 40, 50, 60 years and do it because they really love it. What moments in your career were pivotal to your success? Well, the most pivotal part of my success as a bartender was walking into a great bar and grill in new York City for the first time. Just walking into a new world, the sights, the senses, the smells, the excitement, the strangeness, the beauty, the fear… the world of the bar in nYC was just so overwhelming to me, it made me want to go deeper into that world.
How did you get the moniker King Cocktail? King Cocktail came by accident. My wife’s best friend who is in the news business drank regularly at the Rainbow Room. one day she’s on number three and said, “godd*** dale. These are great f***ing drinks, you’re really the king of cocktails!” Which is your signature drink? Whiskey smash. I created this one because as I went from state to state where there were no fresh juices, so I thought, okay they got lemons and limes in their garnish trays. Why don’t we take three pieces of lemon, throw some sugar on that, mash it all up, put a shot of whiskey on top and some mint leaves or peach slices, shake it up and put it back in the glass. now it’s everywhere and a signature that people recognise me for. So who are the legends you admire? Well, Joe Baum was my mentor, he’s gone now. I look up to people like Al the first bartender I met in new York, Mike o’Conner who was the bartender at Charley o’s [whom] I worked with as a service bartender for years – who taught me how to treat people; and frank Connofry, a bartender at P.J. Clarke’s, who made me understand so much about the bar room. Kevin Zraly, his approach to selling wine is just brilliant, taking the whole stuffed shirt attitude out of wine and making it accessible to the average Joe.
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TALES OF THE COCKTAIL SPECIAL
But it is what it is, there’s no liquid chef on TV, no columns in newspapers, there are very few people who’ve done the crossover to consumer awareness who are recognised as spirit authorities.
I WIsh [ThE] pUBLIc Is As kNOWLEDgEABLE ABOUT BOOzE AND LIqUOR As ThEY ARE ABOUT wine for instance.
Philip duff also started his career working in bars. He once made 400 drinks per hour during an eighthour shift in Crazy Pianos, a bar in Rotterdam, The netherlands. His career also took him to bartending at PJ’s, and the ferrari Bar in london. He is now a well-known bar and beverage consultant who jet sets around the world to give lectures, advice, train the next generation of bar legends and of course, to give talks on the future of the bar culture. Is the drinking culture determined by the society it exists in, or by the bartenders who serve the society? I think you can have a good drinking culture in any society where it’s legal but you won’t have a great one, because society is very important. for instance... in India, cocktail culture there is developing a lot with people entertaining at home, and they’ve got staff whereas in Japan, everybody lives in very, very small apartments so you don’t do home entertaining. You could know people for 20 years and never be invited to their home – all the entertaining and most of the eating is done outside. Those essential aspects of a culture will always influence [the drinking culture]. With that in mind, how then do bartenders influence the drinking culture? An iconic bar opens... it always starts like that. It was fifty one fifty in new York, followed closely by the Atlantic Bar & grill in london in 1995, followed by Madam Janettes in 2001 in Amsterdam. one iconic bar opens and they do it right and everybody says, “Oh finally, we were waiting for this.” [These people were] travelling, they were seeing it abroad, they saw it on blogs, heard about it on the Internet, maybe even read about it, but it wasn’t there. Within three years of the Atlantic Bar & grill opening in london, [there
were] 50 world-class bars in london and previously [there were] fewer than three. Is educating the society part of the bartender’s job? Bartenders have to educate the public [but] I wished they didn’t. I wish [the] public is as knowledgeable about booze and liquor as they are about wine for instance. But it is what it is, there’s no liquid chef on TV, no columns in newspapers, there are very few people who’ve done the crossover to consumer awareness who are recognised as spirit authorities. When we grew up our parents taught us everything abut food, they cooked for us, take us out to restaurants and in this safe environment, you trust and believe and you learn what you like and what you don’t like. When [bartenders] try to educate guests, you sort of almost have to strip them back to childhood, strip away all the defensive layers of ego that they have, that we all have. You have to let them know that you’re on their side, that they can relax, that they’re safe with you because you’re giving them information. You’re busting their myths, you’re letting them take it slowly and learn what they like in a safe environment. It’s a tremendous responsibility. What are the most exciting drinks trends around the world? At the risk of sounding dull – it’s still classic cocktails, five ingredients max, strong small glassware... a lot of it is responsible drinking these days – people don’t drink as much, they don’t go out as often so when they do they want a whole experience. The newest trends – horrible thing to have to say that it’s a trend – but having fun in bars, having a laugh, silly glassware, stupid jokes, bring that back in but do it well on the basis of quality drinks; politeness for the guest, respect for the guest, being nice to them. These are the things that I like and I hope that the trend will run and run.