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The King of Cocktails

America invented the cocktail, then lost the art. Great cocktails are back-even in Honolulu.




The high point of the evening-for me, at least-came when I hopped behind the bar at the Halekülani and mixed a martini, shaker to shaker, with the King of Cocktails, Dale DeGroff.

How much could go wrong?

I'd been making (not drinking) martinis since the age of 10 or 11, when my calabash uncle Louie Moretti placed the glass stirrer from the pitcher on my tongue and said, "Feel how it burns? That's exactly right. You make the next batch."

Of course, Uncle Louie, fine old-school gentleman though he was, was not, like DeGroff, the King of Cocktails. DeGroff is the former head bartender of the Rainbow Room. He's the man the London Tribune called "the Billy Graham of the holy spirits." The man Bon Appetit magazine recently named "Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year." My bartending mentor Uncle Louie was not so well regarded in beverage circles that he made his living flying around the world working on the cocktail programs at venues like the Halekülani.

Nor were Uncle Louie's relatively simple 10:1 gin and vermouth martinis much like a Flaming Heart martini-a drink originally invented for Dean Martin that has become a Dale DeGroff signature.

Still, I'd spent the entire afternoon watching DeGroff work with the Halekülani bartenders on mixing drinks. I thought I was ready.

To make a Flaming Heart martini, you put a quarter-ounce of fino sherry in a shaker glass. Then you add two and a half ounces of decent vodka and fill the shaker with ice.

Uncle Louie stirred his martinis. DeGroff was using a two-part Boston shaker. Over the tempered shaker glass, you slap the metal shaker, firmly, to get a seal.

If you mess up, you spill the drink all over the bar, as DeGroff did once that afternoon at practice. But, presuming you get the seal right, you invert the shaker and then, with fingers over both ends to guard against catastrophe, move it, not side to side, but like a piston.

"What are you, tired?" asks DeGroff. "Shake it!" I put some vigor into it, thought I was doing great. Now it was time to pour.

There was one snag. To get the shaker to come apart, all you do is slap it gently with the heel of your hand near the seal.

For DeGroff, no problem. For me, arghh, I'm slapping and slapping, nothing happens. DeGroff cracks up: "I'm not helping you." Finally, after much desperate fumbling, I find the sweet spot-the seal breaks. I grab the appropriate-size Hawthorne strainer and pour, trying to get that little flourish at the end.

Not done. Now, you take a slice of orange peel, shiny side out, in one hand, a lit match in the other, a few inches from the drink. You snap the orange peel, the orange oil sprays out. It bursts into flame as it passes over the match and settles a flavorful slick of caramelized orange oil on the surface of the martini.

Master mixologist Dale DeGroff puts the fire back into cocktails. Photos: Karin Kovalsky

You don't have to be particularly coordinated to pull it off. (I can do it.) It looks seriously cool. When Frank Sinatra saw it made for Dean Martin, he bought out the restaurant, threw a party and ordered 200 of them.

"It never fails," says DeGroff. "People see you do it at the other end of a dark bar, and you'll end up doing it 20 or 30 times a night." It's his best trick.

However, when it comes right down to it, DeGroff is not about tricks.

If you expect the King of Cocktails to start throwing bottles in the air and catching them behind his back, you are going to be sadly disappointed. The man is about reviving a great American art form that we almost lost to Prohibition, the art of the cocktail.


A Short History of the Cocktail

The golden age of the cocktail was about 1860 to 1912. In those days, bartenders were if not artists, at least skilled craftsmen. They had to rectify their own spirits (take them out of barrels, add water to get an acceptable proof), make their own fruit juices, cordials, bitters and syrups. They made things fresh out of natural ingredients.

Classic bartenders were creative. Most of the classic cocktails were invented during this period-martinis, Manhattans, juleps, collins, old-fashioneds, fizzes and sours.

Bartenders became adept at creating little evanescent works of art, designed to last about 20 minutes. As Harry Craddock, one of the great American bartenders of the early 20th century, once said: "You should drink a cocktail while it's still laughing at you."

The laughter stopped and Prohibition began. By 1912, many American states were dry. By 1919, so was the entire country.

Some of the best American bartenders emigrated, to England (America's Harry Craddock took the cocktail to London's Savoy Hotel), to France (America's Harry MacElhone presided over Harry's Bar in Paris, where Hemingway drank), to Cuba, where there was a thriving American nightlife scene.

What there was left of the American nightlife scene back home was run by gangsters, whose appreciation for the art of the cocktail was limited.

"We exported the cocktail to the rest of the world," says DeGroff. "But in America there was no future in the profession, so it died out."

When liquor came back in the 1930s, you began to get bottled sweet-and-sour mixes and other prepackaged bar goods.

"That sort of thing was a hedge against unskilled labor, since nobody remembered how to mix drinks," says DeGroff. "By the '50s, every bar in America used premade mixes and soda guns. Bartending wasn't a profession, it was a job."


How to Get a Job as a Bartender-Lie

In the 1970s, DeGroff was not yet the King of Cocktails. In fact, he was a young guy in New York City, washing dishes, moving furniture, and working as a gofer for an ad agency. For a while, he was Zsa Zsa Gabor's driver.

Eventually, he found himself waiting tables at a restaurant called Charley O's in Rockefeller Center.

One evening at Charley O's, the catering manager was in a panic. She had a party at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York's mayor, and the bartender hadn't shown up.

"Does anyone here know how to tend bar?' she asked.

"None of the regular bartenders wanted the gig, thankless, no tips," recalls DeGroff. "So I said, 'I know how.' Of course, I was lying."

DeGroff cornered one of the real bartenders and got him to scribble down some common drink recipes. Even so flimsily prepared, he soon found himself making drinks for then Mayor Beame and half of the prominent people in New York. At that moment, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.


How to Become the King of Cocktails-Get an Impossible Boss

For the next few years, DeGroff worked as a bartender at Charley O's and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. He was just a conventional bartender, with soda guns and mixes.

He didn't transform himself into the King of Cocktails until he returned to New York and went to work for Joe Baum.

Baum, who died in 1998, is a legend in American restaurant history. He founded The Four Seasons, Tavern on the Green, Windows on the World. He helped transform America from a country where people ate steak, potatoes and iceberg lettuce salad into a place where food and drink were taken seriously.

Blackberry Julep

"Joe was a tough boss," recalls DeGroff. "He'd order a drink, take a sip, say, It's wrong, and walk away, leaving you to figure it out."

In the mid-'80s, Baum was putting together a high-end restaurant named Aurora. He wanted DeGroff to put together a bar that featured all fresh ingredients, no soda gun.

DeGroff shook his head. "I asked, 'Joe, can't we have guns and mixes as a back up in case we get busy?'

"Joe just looked at me and said, 'Bartenders did it for 100 years. If you can't figure it out, I'll get someone who can.'"

DeGroff said, "No problem." But there was a problem. Modern bartenders relied on mixes to balance a drink correctly. A great cocktail is a complex balance between five components-sweet, sour, bitter, strong (the liquor) and weak (water, fruit juice). The art of hitting that balance from scratch had been lost.

"Joe told me to read Jerry Thomas's How to Mix Drinks," recalls DeGroff. "I went to four or five bookstores and nobody had it. Finally, someone looked it up and said, 'That book was published in 1862!'"

DeGroff began to collect cocktail books at antiquarian dealers. He set out recreating the classic cocktails the way they used to be made.

After Aurora, Baum restored the Rainbow Room. DeGroff proposed a whole new bar program, with a menu of classic cocktails made from scratch.

"The Rainbow Room was the greatest bar in America," insists DeGroff. When Baum's company lost the lease (it still operates under another owner), DeGroff ran the bar at another New York nightspot, Blackbird.

"Blackbird was my most creative period," he says. There he recreated a classic old-style julep (see "Rx from the King of Cocktails," page 160). For his own lunch, he came up with a shooter of tomato juice, lemon or pepper vodka and oysters.

Blackbird closed. Not his fault, insists DeGroff, the restaurant side failed: "If only we'd just stuck to burgers." He was devastated, but in that odd way life has, it turned out for the best.

He's now a consultant. One week, he's in London working with Match Bars UK, the next at a casino in Biloxi, Miss., the next at the Halekülani.


At the Haleku-lani

I was delighted to find DeGroff had been named to the newly created post of director of beverage arts in residence at the Halekülani. When I'd met him a year and a half earlier at the Kapalua Food and Wine Festival, he'd unrolled his kit of bartender tools, muddled fresh cherries and lime wedges with sugar, added vodka and whipped up a Brazilian drink called a caipirosca.

It was the first time I'd tasted anything in a cocktail glass that had the depth and complexity of a decent glass of wine.

When I got back to Honolulu, I looked for a bar making drinks from scratch out of fresh ingredients. Nada, nothing, zip. Back to wine.

So when I heard DeGroff was in Waikïkï, I dropped everything and spent several hours learning everything I could.

This trip-he's returning monthly for a while-he first led a tasting of gins and vodkas for the Halekülani staff.

Although vodkas are not supposed to have a taste, they vary considerably in mouth feel, if not flavor. If you are paying a premium for vodka, you might taste it against some others. My choice: Hanger 1. DeGroff's: Absolut.

Gins, on the hand, vary widely in bouquet and flavor, depending on the botanicals added to the distilled liquor. The classics are London dry gins like Beefeater, redolent of juniper. New Wave gins like Tanqueray 10 or Brokers taste and smell entirely different.

To really appreciate the spirits, you need your sense of smell. A DeGroff tip: If you stick your nose in the glass and inhale, as you would with a glass of wine, you'll anesthetize your nose with alcohol fumes. Instead, with your nose in the glass, breathe through your mouth. Three times, he says.


Half a Straw

After the tasting, DeGroff repaired to Lewers Lounge for several hours of mixing drinks with the bartenders. He distributed his recipes. Everyone took turns making drinks from scratch.

One of the bartenders spent a few minutes cutting straws in half. A lot of straws.

What? I thought. But if you're going to taste a couple dozen cocktails in a few hours, here's how: You dip half a straw in the drink, put your finger over the top. Suction holds about a half inch of liquid in the straw, which you can then drop on your tongue.

This was fun, but it was also work. The discussion got pretty technical: shakers, strainers, ice, how to rim a glass, what kind of olives to put in a martini.

What you don't do is dump two large olives into the drink. "They are heat bombs!" said DeGroff. "They ruin the drink. We've got to get smaller olives." If you want more than one olive in your drink, the extra ones should come on the side.

The bartenders, some of whom seemed reluctant at first, caught DeGroff's enthusiasm. The drinks kept appearing on the bar, we dipped our straws again and again-into everything from classic martinis to modern concoctions such as chocolate and espresso martinis, Cosmopolitans, even a drink DeGroff invented called the Fancy Nancy (for the recipe, see page 160).

DeGroff and HONOLULU editor John Heckathorn mix Flaming Heart martinis.

I began to feel quite thankful for the straws.


The New Lewers Lounge

Later that evening DeGroff put in a couple of hours making drinks at Lewers Lounge for a VIP crowd. That's when, emboldened by the fact that I was no longer merely dipping a straw into drinks, I joined him in making Flaming Heart martinis.

At the reception, I ran into Peter Shaindlin, chief operating officer of the Halekülani Corp. As Shaindlin points out, bringing the King of Cocktails to Honolulu is only part of his larger vision for the hotel. "It's not just about getting a new chocolate martini recipe," he says.

In fact, the new cocktail menu will be matched by a complete renovation and new spirit in the Lewers Lounge-which, while it has always been pleasant, has never been precisely lively.

"We're going to turn this into the best cocktail lounge in Honolulu," insists Shaindlin.

At least the Halekülani is starting in the right place: They are working on what's in the glass. The results are a revelation, especially if all you're used to is what we're all used to, cocktails made with commercial mixes.

Because cocktails, as we're about to discover, can be transient little marvels of balance and flavor. Remember to drink yours while it's still laughing at you.

If you're interested in exploring further, DeGroff wrote a book in 2002, The Craft of the Cocktail (Potter, $35). You can also find 100 classic recipes and much advice on his Web site, kingcocktail.com.

If you don't like to mix for yourself, Lewers Lounge (Halekülani, 2199 Kälia Road, 923-2311) is open 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. nightly.

Rx From The King of Cocktails


Everyone thinks bourbon and mint when they hear the word julep, but the original juleps were made with cognac and peach brandy.
DeGroff invented this icy julep with its berry garnish for a hot New York bar called Blackbird.

3/4 oz. vodka
3/4 oz. Marie Brizard blackberry brandy
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
Berry marinade garnish
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a highball glass filled with crushed ice. Stir until the glass begins to frost. Garnish with marinated berries.

BERRY MARINADE: Prepare a mix of blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. Marinate for a couple hours in brandy, Cointreau and sugar, stirring occasionally. For each quart of berries use 1/2 oz. brandy, 1 oz. of Cointreau or Triple Sec and 1 cup superfine bar sugar.

Once for a press dinner in Dallas, DeGroff made a classic drink called a negroni (which includes Campari and sweet vermouth) to match the first course. Two women guests tasted the drink and winced from its bitterness.
DeGroff, fearing disaster, took back the drinks, poured them into a shaker and made up this recipe on the spot, naming it after one of the women.
The drink eventually won an international martini contest.

1 oz. citrus vodka
1/2 oz. sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. Cointreau
1/2 oz. Campari
1-1/2 oz. fresh orange juice
Orange zest garnish
Shake well and strain into a chilled small martini glass. Garnish with a flamed orange zest.

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