When Dale DeGroff got his first job behind the bar at O’Charley’s on Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center in the 1970s, he had absolutely no experience. “I was a warm body and enthusiastic, so they hired me,” he quips.
If that manager reviewed DeGroff’s credentials today, he’d likely be astounded. Lauded by The New York Times as being “single-handedly responsible for what’s been called the cocktail renaissance,” DeGroff has indeed revived the cocktail and inspired a renewal of bartending as a profession in this country. His impact is felt throughout the industry, from small bars and pubs to high-end restaurants and hotel venues, in the form of passionate bartenders committed to serving quality cocktails with a smile. For his tireless pursuit of the craft of the cocktail, DeGroff has been selected to receive the inaugural VIBE Visionary Award during the upcoming VIBE Conference at the Palazzo in Las Vegas, March 9-10.
DeGroff’s early inspiration came from two sources. During his first years in Manhattan, an advertising executive friend provided his first bar tutorial. “He would take us out to all the best places, and essentially gave me an education about the bar and the ethics of the bar room – how to act, what to order, how to tip, how to treat others and be treated and what to expect on that side of the bar.” The other early resource was his theatrical training. “There is no better training for work behind the mahogany than to study tap dancing and acting,” he says. “You get a sense of physical confidence, an ability to read people and – very important – to listen.” Both experiences instilled in him a tremendous ability to engage and delight those seated at the bar.
A series of bartending jobs and his connections in the advertising world led him to legendary New York restaurateur Joe Baum, who hired DeGroff as head bartender for his Rainbow Room in 1985. With a mandate from Baum to create “a real bar – no soda guns, no mixers,” DeGroff began researching ways to accomplish that feat in an age of quick fixes and prepared product. He scoured countless book stores for a copy of Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks, and the premier classic cocktail lounge in the U.S. was soon born.
From 1987 to 1999, fresh ingredients, adherence to classic recipes, the use of authentic techniques and tools were the calling card of the Rainbow Room’s Promenade Bar, where DeGroff emerged as the nation’s first widely known celebrity bartender.
DeGroff went on to work on drink programs for other high-profile establishments – including Blackbird, Bemelmans Bar and Windows on the World – further developing his craft, along with numerous award-winning cocktails, and generously sharing his knowledge with mixologists and bartenders drawn to his passion. Spirits companies also tapped him for input on product development, recipe creation and bartender education programs, to which he brought his real-world experience and deeply held belief in making quality drinks.
Throughout his career, DeGroff has dedicated himself to teaching the craft of bartending. His first book, The Craft of the Cocktail (Clarkson Potter, 2002), which earned the IACP Julia Child Award, was followed by The Essential Cocktail, published last year. A founding partner in Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), a partnership of six of the world's leading spirits and cocktails authorities who provide training and credentialing in distilled spirits and mixology, he also was instrumental in developing the recently launched United States Bartenders Guild’s Master Accreditation Program. DeGroff is also one of the brains behind the BarSmarts training program from Pernod Ricard USA, for which he also serves as an instructor and presenter.
Numerous initiatives – from cocktail competitions to helping found the Museum of the American Cocktail – are all designed to educate professionals and consumers, prompting them to share in his vision of pride in professional barmanship and the joy of a well-made cocktail. Congratulations, Dale!