Cocktail of the Week: Cocktails and Bar Tales by Mixologist Dale DeGroff
The lively piano notes danced through the air as I walked into the Warehouse Theater. I was greeted with a cocktail, more specifically, a sweet and lemony Colonial punch made from Jamaican rum and cognac. As I took my seat, I recognized one of the tunes being played by Washington's piano virtuoso Dan Ruskinas, “Those Were the Days.”
But this was no typical theater-going experience. The main act was not a famous musician or actor, but rather a storyteller who made his mark in the world of cocktails and mixology, Dale DeGroff. In addition to the music, we were about to hear all about “Those Days, ” the golden age of bars and bartenders. DeGroff came armed with an earful of stories about the history and his experience working at some of New York’s most legendary watering holes.
If an evening of bar stories doesn’t sound exciting and entertaining, you’ve never seen DeGroff in action. Known as one of the pioneers of the craft cocktail movement, DeGroff has authored two best selling cocktail books, "The Essential Cocktail" and "The Craft of the Cocktail," and was the recipient of a 2009 James Beard award. He has held court at the famed Rainbow Room, where he used a gourmet approach to recreate many long-forgotten cocktails.
DeGroff engaged the audience with his witty narrative, tracing the history of the drinking, from colonial-era taverns, through prohibition speakeasies, up to his personal favorites. His colloquial manner and charming personality took the audience back to a time when the local bar was an important part of the community and bartenders treated their customers like old friends. He opened the evening playing his guitar and singing a Hank Williams tune. And, of course, there was a great story behind this ditty.
With the enthusiasm of screenwriter and monologuist Spalding Gray, DeGroff launched into a tale about the first neighborhood bar he discovered in New York, Paddy McGlades in 1969. At the time, DeGroff was living at the YMCA, hoping to get his big break on Broadway, when a friend of a friend, who had a room for rent, asked to meet him at McGlades. DeGroff arrived at the bar, with his guitar, suitcase and $2.50 in his pocket, which he quickly blew through before his friend arrived. When someone asked him if he could play the guitar he launched into a rendition of “Your Cheating Heart“ to which he was rewarded with a beer on the house. He duly played it three more times for three more beers, since it was the only song that he knew all the lyrics to.
DeGroff reminisced about McGlades as if it were a long lost friend. Which it is, since a Starbucks now stands in its place. He continued with anecdotes about many storied bars, including P.J. Clarke’s (the original, not the D.C. outpost), McSorley’s Ale House, the 21 Club, the Blue Note and eventually the Rainbow Room, where in the 1980s he put together a menu of cocktails inspired by the great supper clubs of days-gone-by.
Cocktails flowed throughout the evening, each one a delightful concoction perfected by DeGroff. The experience was akin to going to a fabulous bar where you luck out and find yourself seated next to the most interesting man in the joint.
Having lived in Manhattan before moving to Washington, DeGroff actually made me a bit homesick for places like McSorley's, New York’s oldest bar, which was a few blocks from my apartment in the East Village or the Rainbow Room, my favorite spot to take out-of-town guests, which was located across the street from my office at the Associated Press in Rockefeller Center.
Before I knew it, two hours had passed. It was time to call it a night. The evening was capped off with a Yuzu gimlet, a refreshing twist on the standard, jazzed up with Asian Yuzu juice and honey.
DeGroff’s traveling show, which is being performed as a fundraiser for the Museum of the American Cocktail, will be making stops in New York and Philadelphia. For more information, visit KingCocktail.com/onthetown.htm or www.MuseumoftheAmericanCocktail.org
YUZU GIMLET 1 1/2 ounce Hendricks Gin 1/4 Yuzu juice 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice 1 ounce honey syrup Lime wheel garnish Assemble ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with thin wheel of lime. Adjust sweetness with honey syrup.