We interviewed the King of Cocktails. Here's 5 things we learnt:

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When we decided to do a podcast about mixology, we immediately knew we had to talk to Dale DeGroff. He’s been part of the industry since the 1970s and his name is synonymous with it, having been more than partly responsible for the rise and transformation of cocktail culture and bartending internationally. His books, The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail, have been read by passionate mixologists the world over.

Naturally, we were ecstatic when he agreed to come on the show, and even more excited about the fact that he’d be our first ever interview for Living Proof.

You can hear our chat in Episode 1 of Living Proof, but we’ve taken some of the best bits and written them down for you to digest right now.

Here’s 5 things we learnt:

1. The ‘cocktail revolution’ is upon us

In the past, Dale’s been quoted as saying that we’re still decades away from a true cocktail revolution, but thanks to the explosion of creativity in the culinary world, bars, consumers and cocktail culture generally have followed suit. We’re there!

2. It’s all in the details

If a cocktail is ‘simple’ and consists of only a few ingredients, then it’s the attention to detail that either makes it or breaks it. For example, a martini made with supremely chilled glassware will be ruined by two warm olives.

3. Even the best have to fake it ‘til they make it sometimes

Dale started out as a waiter and lied through his teeth about his experience in order to get his first shift on the bar - at a massive party at Gracie Mansion where Rupert Murdoch was being presented the keys to the city! A few years later, Murdoch would refer to him as “that hot shit cocktail guy.”

4. Education of the consumer has driven cocktail quality

Dale believes that it’s the drinks companies who got the ball rolling on the current wave of excitement, by educating consumers about their products and how to use them. In turn, bartenders had to become even more knowledgeable, so that they’d “be at least as smart as the people sitting at the bar.”

5. When in Rome!

Dale’s a dry gin martini drinker, but he likes to match his drink to where he is at the time. For example, it’s a Sazerac in New Orleans, a Daiquiri if he’s in Havana or a Sour in Peru.


And if you prefer the written word over the spoken one, here's a more extended excerpt of the interview for you to wrap your eyes around:

The Admiral: Would you say that the epicentre for bars in the United States is LA, New York and San Francisco?

 Dale DeGroff: New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco and then there’s a pocket of real interest in the Seattle and Portland area. There are a lot of wineries, a lot of craft beer, a lot of craft distilling up there and a really strong craft bar community. And the other thing that’s extraordinary about the United states is that our USBG, the United States Bartending Guild, which is a signatory of the International Bar Association, has exploded. I was a member of the single chapter in Los Angeles back in the late 70s, early 80s and now there’s 35 or 40 chapters around the country. That’s another signal about what’s happening in what used to be a very challenged profession after prohibition which has now become a much more interesting and much more professional place to be.

TA: How would you say Australia stacks up against some of those cities?

DD: Absolutely on a par, I would say. This is the age of the internet and the ability of these bartenders to stay current is absolutely a level playing field in my opinion. Even in 2006 when we came here, we went to the Bayswater Brasserie and all these wonderful places they were doing extraordinary stuff - I was very impressed.

Nicole Haack: I note along the way you’ve talked about saying that we’re still decades away from a true cocktail revolution, how close do you think we are now?

DD: Oh my god, yeah - we’re there! Without a doubt … even in the US, in every secondary city there are two or three really extraordinary bars. It’s possible to drink well pretty much wherever you are now, this thing has created such a wave of excitement among young people in the industry; everybody wants to buy into it. It’s [at] the same place as where the food revolution was in the late 90s, where we’d gone through Nouvelle, California cuisine and all that excitement, then it’s a fusion and an extraordinary explosion of creativity. I think that’s where we are - we’ve finally gotten over the hump and we’re in that very sweet place.

One of the things I talk about on this tour is that what we’re doing in the bar now would not have been possible if there hadn’t been an extraordinary culinary revolution that really created an audience of people in love with big flavour and willing to take a chance on all kinds of cuisines, and that translates now to all kinds of cocktails.

TA: is there anything else you could point to that really helped to drive cocktails?

DD: Well, the big drinks companies finally understood and have really bought in to the idea that educating bartenders is really a smart thing to do. And they’ve done it. They started by educating consumers - you might remember that in the malt scotch explosion that swept the world, there were advertorials constantly in all our newspapers of note explaining it. And they were really well written, almost like reading how-to books. I used to have to tell my bartenders back in that day, “look out fellas - you need to be at least as smart as people sitting at your bar, and they’re smart now! They’ve been educated by the drinks companies.” And now they’ve spent a tremendous amount of money to educate bartenders.

NH: what advice would you give to young bartenders trying to make their way in today's industry?

DD: I would say - total immersion. Knife skills, take a wine class, learn about eastern spirits, coffee, tea, understand beer. You need to be a full immersion beverage person these days, because that’s where the work is. Even in a small restaurant, in a small town, you need to be in command of all those things, because that’s what we do, and people are interested in all those things. Just because people don’t drink beer doesn’t mean they don’t drink cocktails, doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy exotic coffees and doesn’t mean that they don’t understand what sake is. People are well educated, and you need to be an all-round professional. That’s, to me, the challenge for young guys.

For some reason somebody a long time ago decided that bartenders didn’t need to learn how to taste like chefs and wine guys – who made that rule? Now that we’re so culinary and using so much of the same ingredients, I think bartenders need to learn how to taste! They need to have all that part of the culinary experience in their training. We spend a lot of time in our five-day Masters class tasting through over 200 spirits from around the world and making people better tasters, because without that skill, everything else is kind of peripheral.