When Dale DeGroff first moved to New York City, he expected to make it on Broadway as an actor. But like most big-city ambitions, things don’t quite work out that way—he stayed at a YMCA and worked in a factory making Gideon Bibles. When he finally found a more permanent room, his friend advised him to wait in a local dive bar. He had two bucks in his pocket. He came into the bar with all his belongings—at that time just a rucksack and a guitar. The regulars saw the guitar and asked if he could play. Throughout the night, the barflies bought him rounds as he played, on repeat, the only song he knew: “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams. The bar became his neighborhood hangout, his first community in the big city. This, he says, is why he starts his two-man show, On the Town With Dale DeGroff: A Tribute to Bars, Speakeasies and Legendary Saloons, with a rendition of the country classic.
DeGroff is the former behind-the-bar alchemist at the Rainbow Room and other storied New York establishments, and he is the founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail. He began performing his show, sort of a cocktail in itself—one part oral history, one part storytelling, one part multimedia photo exhibition, one part music, and one part cocktail-tasting—for a museum audience about two years ago. He took it to Washington, DC, performing in a black box theater behind the Columbia Room, and then in New York. It’s since become a cross-country tour to benefit the museum. At each show, a local musician accompanies him to play some American classics, from Hank Williams to Fats Waller. Tonight in Chicago it’s Andy Brown of the storied Green Mill jazz club, but once he had a gig out in Los Angeles and inadvertently hired the original guitarist for Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass.
Most of DeGroff’s stories in the show are autobiographical, save for a history lesson at the beginning. At 64, and with thirty years behind the bar and the remnants of a 125,000-word manuscript, DeGroff has a whole lot to talk about.
We begin the night by drinking the cocktails the founding fathers drank. The Punch Royale being served at The Drawing Room in Chicago—a simple but tasty affair of crushed sugar and lemon, whiskey (you can taste the whiskey) and rainwater Madeira—is a 300-year-old recipe. DeGroff says America was founded on “rum and revolution,” and that the effect British taxes had on the liquor industry contributed to the Revolutionary War. Even the concept of tipping in bars, he says, has roots in American democratic values.
The cocktail has always been a metaphor for the American people, he says. People came here from all over and formed communities akin to the beer halls of Germany and the pubs of the British Isles (“They even found wine bars in Pompeii,” he adds), and the drinks themselves are a melding of traditions. He loves using the phrase “bar diaspora,” linking a word commonly used to describe immigration patterns and the preservation of tradition to the advent of the cocktail.
“We weren’t the first ones to mix things together,” he says. “People added honey to wine when it was lousy; they added flavors to vodka before they figured out how to filter it. But we were the first that invented a whole slew of goofy, made-to-order drinks for individuals.”
To drive home his point about how important drinking and congregating in bars is to American culture, DeGroff dedicates a good portion of the show to Prohibition. The more than 100,000 speakeasies, the Chicago bootleggers who inadvertently broke the color barrier in a city still segregated. But the most important and telling element, he says, is how many regular Americans who would never consider doing anything illegal were willing to break the law to keep the booze flowing. “Really normal, everyday people who would never ordinarily under any circumstances consider breaking the law,” he explains, “had no problem whatsoever because they absolutely felt they were being put upon by the government.”
When the repeal of Prohibition is mentioned, the audience cheers. DeGroff follows this up with the Depression, the advent of the “Angelus Hour,” and the communities that formed in neighborhood bars during the toughest years—both the good kind and the “buckets of blood.” He starts to get into the autobiographical: his years at the Rainbow Room and other Manhattan establishments, being around Bel Geddes and Dale Chihuly, and about the best advice his boss ever gave him about talking to the press. When DeGroff told a reporter he “was trying” to do something, the owner was livid. We are, he says. We are not trying.
DeGroff has stepped out from behind the bar and now writes and teaches master classes all over the world. He says the internet has helped spur an international cocktail revolution. It’s a sea change, he says, from when he started bartending. For nearly 70 years after Prohibition, there was no future in mixing drinks, but the popularity of cocktails, mixology, and premium spirits have skyrocketed all over the world. They are more accessible, making their way into international hotel chains and high-end restaurants, and mixing drinks is respected as more of an art form. “We’ve gone from about 15 artisan distillers in the United States to about 315 now with five or six more added every year,” he says.
Although New York and New Orleans, which factor greatly into his production, are at the top of his list, DeGroff says you can find a great cocktail bar anywhere, from Tuscon to Terre Haute, Indiana. He’s cited Portland, Seattle, and Scottsdale as other recently discovered favorites. And, of course, the site of tonight’s performance. “Chicago, are you kiddin’ me? I’m doing my show at the Drawing Room for a reason,” he says. “Charles Joly is one of the masters of the profession. It’s an honor to perform at his bar.”
The audience stays behind after the show to finish their cocktails and mingle. As a closer, DeGroff has prepared one of his own inventions, a yuzu gimlet, for a sweet and contemporary finish to the night. It becomes a celebration of the bar diaspora that DeGroff so frequently praises. There’s laughter and clinking—a continuation of the more furtive toasts throughout the show.
“There is the unique and interesting relationship between the people who work at bars and the people that hang out there, especially in the big cities where people don’t have big houses to live in so they go to their neighborhood bar to live their lives,” he says. “The community they find there is so important, especially because they go to the city to leave their families and they come here and find new families, these important extended families.”
One of his favorite bars, McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village, has wishbones hanging from the ceiling. DeGroff asked the bartender the story behind them. During the first World War, when the regulars would go off to fight, they each hung a wishbone from the ceiling. The ones who came back broke theirs with the bartender for luck. The ones who didn’t come back are still given a symbolic place in the bar through their wishbones. “That’s community,” he says.
For recipes for the cocktails mentioned above, click to the next page!
ON THE TOWN RECIPES
2.5 Jameson’s Irish Whiskey
.5 Rainwater Madeira
1 gallon spring water
24 ounces fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 cups granulated sugar
12 to 14 fresh firm lemons
Remove skin only from lemons with a vegetable peeler. Pound the lemon peels together with with 2 1/2 cups of sugar. Use a pestle or a muddler to pound the sugar and lemon peels to extract the oils. Leave a minimum of 3 hours and muddle occasionally. Pour in pour in the 3 cups of lemon juice and dissolve the sugar. Add 3 cups of spring water and stir. Strain the liquid off the lemon peels, bottle and refrigerate until use. Refrigerate the peels (use as garnish).
Assemble the whiskey Madeira, shrub, and additional 1.5 liter of water water and stir. Chill with block ice or ice cubes just before service. Serve in goblet over cubed ice. Garnish with lemon peels and dust w/nutmeg. NOTE: Might be easier to serve from pitchers as they arrive, but punch bowls work, too.
1 ounce (30ml) Pernod Absinthe
1 ounce (30ml) spring water
2 dashes Marie Brizard Anisette (No substitutes)
Build the three ingredients together in a mixing glass with cubed ice. Shake and strain into a goblet filled with shaved ice. No garnish.
The Major Bailey (Southside Style)
1 1/2 ounce (45ml) Beefeater Gin
1/2 oz. (15ml) simple syrup (1 pt water 1 part sugar)
1/4 ounce (8ml) lemon juice
1/4 ounce (8ml) lime juice
Several mint leaves and a mint sprig
Original drink by Dale DeGroff
1 1/2 ounce (45ml) Plymouth Gin
1/4 (7ml) Yuzu juice
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce honey syrup
Lime wheel garnish
Assemble all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a thin wheel of lime. Adjust sweetness with honey syrup.