Dale DeGroff is one of the world’s foremost cocktail experts. His book “The Craft of the Cocktail,” published by Clarkson Potter in 2002, is regarded as an essential bartending guide. He is the founding president of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, which reopened earlier this year. Mr. DeGroff is also a consultant working with bars and restaurants through the Beverage Alcohol Resource group, including the new Oleanders in Brooklyn.
Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. DeGroff.
Q. What is the origin of the word “cocktail”?
A. As for alcoholic drinks, it goes back to 1806 and a reference in The Balance, and Columbian Repository, a Hudson, N.Y., newspaper. Candidates used alcohol freely in those days in election campaigns, and in New York at least, there was a law that required printing the dollar value and types of alcohol. One candidate’s article mentions spending $25 for cocktails. Some old coot writes the editor in response, “What is this thing called cocktail?” The editor writes, “It’s strong spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” We begin our exhibit timeline at the cocktail museum with the 1806 newspaper.
How did you develop the cocktail museum in New Orleans, and how do you fit with the city’s recovery, 10 years after Katrina?
In late 2004, early 2005 we moved into the Pharmacy Museum. Perfect, because pharmacies during Prohibition were for illicit booze. After Katrina, we packed up in the midst of this city still in tatters, and drove to Las Vegas to reopen in Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan’s Commander’s Palace in the Aladdin Hotel and Casino. In 2007, we moved back into the Riverwalk Marketplace. After six and a half years, New Orleans wanted to save an old neighborhood, Central City, off the St. Charles Street streetcar line north. They wanted that neighborhood to become a culinary destination, so much so they helped us with financing. It’s now an up-and-coming neighborhood a half-hour walk from the French Quarter, or a six-minute walk from the streetcar station. SoFAB, the Southern Food and Beverage Institute, runs the Museum of the American Cocktail and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum together. I go down about four times a year to the museum for special events.
What was it like to work in Rockefeller Center’s fabled Rainbow Room, from 1987 to 1999?
Everybody played our cabaret. Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, you name it. An exciting place, a bar where you might have a housewife from New Jersey and two South Dakota kids, one with red hair and a nose ring, Tom Brokaw. Incredibly eclectic. Every single person dressed, celebrating, absolutely stunning every night.
What are some places defining cocktails and where can you get them traveling?
The manhattan in America is the most obvious one; the martini — you think of New York. Oh my God, if you don’t drink sazeracs and Ramos gin fizzes in New Orleans, brandy milk punches or Pimm’s Cups at Napoleon House, you’re an idiot. Take advantage of what there is locally. Mint juleps at the Derby. Florence, drink negronis. Harry’s in Paris, a Bloody Mary. If you go to Cuba, daiquiris, at Floridita. The Aviary in Chicago does those crazy, wonderful molecular mixology drinks. Buena Vista in San Francisco, drink Irish coffees. These are traditions and they are making a comeback.