We're drinking moonshine, the teacher
and I, pure Carolina corn whiskey poured from a Mason jar into the daintiest
little glasses you've ever seen. The hooch is a smuggled offering, and Dale
DeGroff, who tends the God's eye view bar at the Rainbow Room, high atop Rockefeller
Center in New York, where the corn and the clientele are usually a little
more refined, has this to say about it":"Woooooooweeee! 'He's telling
me about what a good bartender will know. People. Recipes. How to ignite an
orange peel and turn a barful of strangers into a rapt, interacting audience.
But he's really talking about something more elusive- the ethic and enthusiasms
of a great bartender, which, with slight adjustment for dress and position,
are identical to the enthusiasms of a great drinker.
DeGroff trains young bartenders at joints around New York (and only DeGroff can get away with calling the swanky Rainbow Room a joint). After he has covered the shaking and the stirring and his nearly religious respect for fresh juices, he tells the aspirants, "Whatever the hell you want to be, while you're behind the bar you might as well know everything there is to know about it." Not because it's necessary for a bartender to be conversant with the history of the Golden Age of the American Cocktail (though DeGroff could give a lecture on the drinks conceived between 1860 and 1919). And not because it's necessary to memorize every drink recipe on record (though DeGroff could stir up 400 from memory, including forty or so of his own invention). You might as well know everything, DeGroff says, "because that's the way your life should be anyway."
But something saved him from just being
another bullshitting bartender with a lot of stories to tell. One night
and this was after hed been in the trade five years and worked good
jobs on two coasts he was making a sidecar at the
Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles. An older man, a regular, stopped him and said, I bet you think you made that right, dont you? The regular, it turned out, was a bartender at another hotel, the LErmitage, and he explained the importance of Cointreau over Triple sec, what size glass to use and how to put sugar on the rim. It turned out that DeGroff didnt know a damned thing about the business of making a proper drink. So as he does with almost everyone he meets on either side of a bar, he befriended the older man. DeGroff has been learning things from old bartenders ever since, and his respect for the profession has little to do with self-aggrandizement. It has more to do going where the learning is and paying tribute where its due. Then there are the bartenders DeGroff knows only from books. He wanted to know what drinks would have been served in the classic bars of New York, places that would have been visible from the perch of the Rainbow Room. So twelve years ago he started collecting bar books. Today he has 600 recipe compilations, monographs and memoirs in his collection.
Knowing everything, though, takes time. Knowing everything means the teacher is never finished learning. Which is why were swirling and sniffing Carolina lightning in little pousse-cafe glasses and chasing them with Rainbow sours, and why a little later we'll descend the sixty-five floors and head out into rainy Manhattan and catch a crosstown bus to the ancient and unvanquished Clarkes. Clarkes will be full of friends, including George Erml, a transplanted Czech who photographs New Yorks disappearing saloons. When an exhibition of Ermls work opened in Prague, DeGroff flew over for the party and made 1200 martinis and Manhattans in two hours. After a round of hellos and whiskeys and a nod to Frank Conefery, the fallen brother whose picture hangs above the bar, DeGroff will order an Irish coffee. Its a thing of beauty, DeGroff will say of the squat little drink in the punch