Manhattan Project 


Dale DeGroff is a man on a mission — to re-introduce Americans to the pleasures of home bartending. Not, mind you, the oafish bailings of rye or vodka into glasses full of ice that you or I practice, but that vanishing art of mixing classic cocktails, those expansive, nuanced drinks whose names evoke images of tail-finned cars, white-gloved doormen and chrome cigarette cases.

If FDR led the country out of the wilderness of Prohibition and spurred home-bar construction with his White House martini making, DeGroff wants to take our foolishly neglected legacy of drink back to the future. And so, as part of a national tour sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council, the former “master mixologist” of New York’s fabled Rainbow Room arrived in town last week for appearances at Linq, the Sunset Room and the Bel Air Hotel, where he demonstrated the relative ease of mixing Sidecars, Manhattans and Rusty Nails.

OffBeat caught up with him at Musso & Frank’s bar, where he was enjoying a dry Rob Roy and chatting with bartender Manny Aguirre about the late, lamented Chasen’s, Scandia and Cock ’n’ Bull. DeGroff is a likable man who’ll begin an anecdote while in mid-handshake. He began his career in L.A., tending bar at the Bel Air Hotel for seven seasons and waiting for an acting break that never came. (Ask him about the time actor George C. Scott sheepishly appeared at the entrance of the Bel Air’s bar and called to DeGroff to send over a scotch after he’d been banned from the bar for slugging Richard Zanuck.)

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A true diplomat, DeGroff blames L.A.’s dreary bar culture on California’s antismoking laws, and even managed to think of one contribution our city has made to the arsenal of booze — the apple martini. But he is clear that New York bar culture is king.

“People in New York follow their favorite bartenders around from place to place,” he says about his profession. “In New York, bars are a natural resource like redwoods, and we are the rangers.”

The history of the cocktail is one of DeGroff’s passions, and he’s deep in the writing of a book on the same. “The Manhattan is one of the few cocktails whose origins can be definitely traced,” he says. “Winston Churchill’s mother, who was American, threw a party at the Manhattan Club for Governor Tilden of New York. She asked the bartender to come up with a special drink for the occasion, and that’s how the Manhattan was born.” DeGroff, more controversially, also places the martini’s origin in New York. But he is never less than charming as he holds forth on its continuing evolution from the 3-1 (gin to vermouth) Prohibition variety to what he calls the 11-1 Cold War martini.

With our cocooning nation gripped by gourmandism and tougher DUI and antismoking laws, DeGroff senses that the Zeitgeist is right to re-acquaint Americans with the home bar. “People are taking pride in their bloody marys and martinis,” he notes approvingly.

Still, OffBeat remembers the brute simplicity of mixing at home in the 1970s, when “making a drink” meant going to the kitchen, opening the cabinet above the toaster and pouring a shot from the bottle marked “scotch” — with ice if one was feeling particularly ambitious. Granted, today’s young live and die by their cosmopolitans and lemon drops, but are they willing to labor over these potable feasts at home?

DeGroff says it’s really not so difficult, although “The making of a martini is more important than the drinking of it,” he counsels in a Zen-like aside. Correct measurements are essential, he advises. “Why would you embark on making eggs Benedict for the first time without following a recipe?” And proper glassware. “My generation was responsible for the one-glass bar in the ’70s,” he confesses, but “If you look closely at an Irish-coffee glass, you’ll see it was made that way for a specific reason — [its curves] let the bartender know exactly how much whiskey, coffee and cream to put in. If you pour that drink into an old-fashioned glass, the coffee’ll drown out everything.” (DeGroff also has a particular fondness for the classic V-shaped martini glass: “Anything in that sexy glass is going to be popular.”)

Although DeGroff is a demanding taskmaster (one of his courses at the Peter Kump Cooking School is called “Bartender’s Bootcamp”), his message is always to most definitely try this at home — a place that never sounds Last Call.

—Steven Mikulan

For drink recipes, trade tips and philosophy, visit Dale DeGroff’s Web site at www. kingcocktail.com.

A Tale of Two Shvitzes

Why would anyone want to spend time in a room heated to a temperature of 190 degrees? It’s a good question. Here’s another: Is there an animal that would willingly endure it? None, surely, but Homo sapiens, wiliest of God’s creatures. For some reason, he (or she) enjoys it.

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