On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined by industry legend Dale DeGroff, also known as “King Cocktail.” They explore the 50/50 Martini and its evolution in the cocktail world over the last 150 years. Plus, the two recount changes within the spirits category over the last few decades. Tune in to learn more.
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” Listeners, you’re more than familiar by now with the fact that I am from the British Isles. I am not, however, the largest fan of the royal family or the idea of the royal family in general. But I will say this: We’re in the presence of royalty today. King Cocktail himself, Dale DeGroff. Dale, welcome.
Dale DeGroff: How are you? Nice to see you. Nice to be here, Tim. And by the way, we don’t have royalty in this country. You know that.
T: Not in this country.
D: Should I briefly tell you about King Cocktail, where it came from?
T: Yes, please.
D: Behind the bar at the Rainbow Room. And there was a woman from “A Current Affair,” which was a TV show that shot across the street from us, across Sixth Avenue or Avenue of the Americas, as they call it. She came up after a long day sometimes, and she was up there. She said, “Oh, just give me the first thing on your menu.” I poured her a drink off the menu. So that was good. Let’s go down the menu, give me the second thing. And then we get down to No. 5. She said, “This is good, too. You know something, Dale? You are the king of cocktails.” I said, “That’s it.” This was right at the beginning of the dot-com era. So I thought, “Oh, my God, KingCocktail.com.” Her name was Cynthia Fagan, and she was a good friend of my wife’s and also an author, and sometimes on the air with the TV show “A Current Affair,” which is long gone now.
T: There we go. That’s the origin story right there. It’s wonderful. We’re going to speak about Martinis today. Martinis are a drink that I could talk about forever. It’s a drink that I love. I do have a small confession because the topic of this show is particularly the 50/50 Martini. And it is one that I’ve been on the record, both in written word and perhaps audio, as not being the biggest fan of before. But in preparation for the show, I realized that it’s not a drink that I often or ever order, and I can’t think where I’ve ever had a bad one per se. So I guess my first question off the bat is, how much does the 50/50 Martini align with the soul of this cocktail? Gin Martinis being dry, boozy, punchy, the 50/50 is a completely different beast. So how do you feel like that fits in there, Dale?
D: Well, I guess you really have to go back to 1888. Let me crack a book here. On page 165 of the original 1888 — there was an 1882 edition before — of Harry Johnson’s famous “New and Improved Bartender’s Manual.” He says, “Martini cocktail, use a large glass to fill the glass up with ice, two or three dashes of gum syrup. Be careful not to use too much two or three dashes of bitters. Poker’s genuine only. One dash of Curaçao or absinthe if required. A half a wine glass” — that would have been 1 ounce — “Old Tom gin, a half a wine glass of vermouth. Stir up well with a spoon, strain into a fancy cocktail glass, put a cherry or medium-size olive if required, and squeeze a piece of lemon peel on the top. Serve as the illustration plate number 13.” So from that moment on in 1888, because he was one of the fathers of the profession, along with Jerry Thomas, it was a real craft. It was a real master-apprentice craft. And young bartenders were really not prepared to call something a Martini that didn’t follow Dr. Johnson’s prescription, even in the “Hoffman’s Bartender’s Guide” in 1905. You see one of the greats, Charles H. Mahoney. Now, Charles has a series of dry gin, dry vermouth, sometimes using Nicholson’s gin. Let’s see if he mentions my name and the other gins. I seem to have been a Nicholson fan, which is a London Dry-style gin. And this one is this half gin, half vermouth. He calls for a slice of orange — who knows why? But he calls it the J.P.C. cocktail. And then there’s another one called the Mahoney Cocktail; a half-jigger of Nicholson’s, a half-jigger of French vermouth, a dash of orange bitters. The Nutting Cocktail; two-thirds of Plymouth Gin — a very dry gin — one-third of French vermouth, very dry. A drop of orange bitters. Stir well, serve. Still won’t call it a Martini cocktail. What does he call a Martini cocktail? Let’s see if we can find it here. Here it is. Two dashes of gum syrup, three dash of bitters — hello — right back to half a wine glass of Old Tom. A half a wine glass of vermouth. Because he would not call anything a Martini except the master’s original recipe. Now, this went right up until Prohibition, but they respected the recipe that he had. Now, there are a couple of outliers to that, but very few. Pretty much everybody respected those original specs. So we hadn’t really had a 50/50, either, for a long time until Audrey Saunders opened Pegu Club, and I had one.
T: And this would have been roughly what time, for the listeners here?
D: I was a Beefeater Dry kind of guy, and that 8:1 or somewhere around there with a twist and an olive. That had been my comfortable order for many, many, many years. Suddenly my universe was thrown into absolute chaos, because here I am, chasing this drink with the orange bitters and half-and-half. And it was good gin. It was good vermouth. Fast forward, I would still have my Beefeater. But I would also, depending on what kind of a bar I was in, craft or otherwise, I would try to figure out which type of Martini I would have. If it were the PJ Clarke’s, I had my classic Martini. But if I went to a craft bar, I would order their 50/50. I would see what clever thing they had done with it. Now fast forward to my association with William Grant, and in particular Hendrick’s Gin. They invited me to their offices to taste a new addition to the line called Orbium, which was quite different from the original. Which I loved in cocktails but never used in my Martini because I thought, “Oh, my God, it’s a little too vegetal, it’s a little too floral for my Martini style.” And then I tasted the Orbium, which had a really interesting, bitter finish because I found out it had gentian and it had quinine. It had a totally different aromatic profile. It had lotus flower, not rose. So it was a different animal, and it was a Martini animal, in my opinion. So I started up in the office making drinks with Charlotte Voisey and Eric Anderson. We were together for an hour and half to 2 hours, longer probably. If you consider the fact that we sat and drank for a while — 13 different Martinis.
T: And this would have been, what, 2018, 2019 when that was first released? Or was this prior to that?
D: This would have been prior to Covid. So I ended up making a show out of that event called “The Evolution of the Martini,” where I started with 1888. And I worked my way through talking about how and why things changed with the Martini, including what I gave you.
T: It’s a wonderful reminder that everything that is old becomes new. Again, we see this throughout history, and specifically in cocktails. I think maybe there is a tendency within the bartending community or engaged drinkers to feel like the 50/50 is a modern cocktail. So it’s very, very interesting to hear that that was the original. That has me questioning my whole own Martini origin stories, my very existence here.
D: As with mine. I went through that same angst.
T: I’m right there with you. I’m a 7-8-1 kind of guy and I know that’s very dry; it doesn’t mean that I don’t like vermouth. It’s just how I normally like my Martini to hit. But one thing that you’ve mentioned there. So we’re talking about a few different points in time. If we may begin this conversation now at Audrey’s place — 2003 — 19 years have passed since then. The drinking landscape has changed a lot because of ingredients. How crucial do you think that is to the story of the 50/50 Martini, gin and vermouth, and just the understanding of those categories as well now?
D: It has completely changed a lot of the way we approach drink-making. And it certainly did for me because in the original craft of the cocktail, I only branded things like Chartreuse or Cointreau. Things that I thought didn’t have an easy replacement in the marketplace, and they were in my drink. There were certain iconic products that filled a little niche and you couldn’t really find anything to compete with them. So, yes. But in my standard gin, vodka, Scotch, tequila, whatever, I did not brand. I did not brand because there was a limited number going back all the way to Prohibition. I mean, after Prohibition, there were maybe 1,200 spirits available quickly in this country. 1,200; think about that number for a moment. When I say to you there are more than 7,000 gins worldwide right now.
T: It’s incredible.
D: Oh, my God. You know, when we went from Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Laphroaig in the 1980s to walking into a whiskey bar today and seeing a back bar completely filled with malt Scotch is in the hundreds. Many of those malt Scotches were put in blends back in 1980. And people realized that they were leaving money on the table. They created their own brands, and off they went. So that’s another example: tequila. When I opened the Rainbow Room in 1987, Cuervo Gold, baby. A Cuervo Margarita with fresh lime juice and Cointreau. And then I went to a tasting one day, sometime around 1989, I thought it was Gaz Regan who led the tasting. He says he didn’t, but I’m still convinced it was him. It was some weird group of tequilas. And I’m tasting these things and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is weird stuff. This is not tequila.” What I was tasting for the first time was agave, instead of sugar cane mixed with agave. What I found weird was what real tequila was supposed to taste like. And this is the way we’ve gone category by category, as we’ve discovered what Old Tom or Genever could be. What it’s been for 200 years and is now again in this country. 100 percent percent malt is now the basis for one of the Martinis in this list I sent you. We’ll get to that. Liqueurs. First of all, the French were the masters of fruit liqueurs. In this country, we kind of played the imitation game. We wanted to put them in the bottle at $11 — or actually in the beginning at $5. So what did we do? The chemists got to work and they found out, “Oh, we can make mango taste like mango with this chemical.” Rather than using fruit the way the French did, we had our lines of cordials. And it was interesting. They all have French-sounding names. Of course, the more French-sounding the names were, the worse they were.
T: And probably the more you could charge as well.
D: No, actually, the whole idea was to keep it under $10. And of course, they blanketed the market because everybody wanted their cordial lines under $10, but nobody cared about quality. They didn’t call their cocktails, they said Gin & Tonic, Scotch on the rocks, bourbon on the rocks. People very, very seldom called a cocktail back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. Only into the ’90s did you finally see people after things like Absolut, Stoli, some of that stuff. There were a few people that called Scotches early on because they got heavy marketing in the advertising world. But people would easily switch brands by falling prey to the next advertising campaign. I guess what I’m getting at is that in the new millennium, there were so many providers. And by the way, you had all the liquor companies amalgamating. When Seagram’s went down, that was the beginning of the end. They split up Seagram’s. Diageo bought a whole bunch of it, Pernod Ricard bought a whole bunch of it. More and more and more, these brands came together under large corporate entities. So these guys had the money to develop lots and lots of products, especially in the premium, super-premium, and ultra-premium categories. Because that seemed to be what was popular. In that way, we’re blessed to have an amazing array of extraordinary products in almost every category. It’s a little tough on the little guy that these big companies are such powers in the industry. But then we have the long tail market. Which means you have a company like Eric’s company, which has a book this thick of hundreds of products that he sells in very small quantities because he is minding the long tail market. And he’s doing it extraordinarily well so he could get those products. They don’t care whether the big companies will carry them; we know where we can go to get them. And in the final analysis, I have branded every single drink in my new “Craft of the Cocktail” because I wanted to tune the flavors that I wanted in that cocktail.
D: If you look at these Martini recipes that I sent you, one of them is made with 100 percent malt Old Duff. One of those made was Orbium. Some of them were made with Orbium because I was working for Beam at the time. But I’m talking in a really dry style. We also went with Ransom Old Tom. Ransom was really interesting, Old Tom never really had a description of what it meant to be Old Tom. It does not have to be sweet. It does not have to do this or do that because it was just a name — name created by a company, a spirit producer in England that used to produce spirit for rectification into gin. And these guys were powerful in the market in the early days of gin, but they had some very exclusive customers that made a special really good base spirit and then crafted a gin around that base spirit. So it was cleaner than the stuff they sold to the average customer. I did some research done by David Wondrich and there’s a marvelous article about Old Tom. If you Google “David Wondrich Old Tom,” you’ll get the story. They would send this gin to their exclusive customers who maybe owned a big company that rectified gin on a mass scale. But this was this private cellar, and they called it Old Tom. So that’s where Old Tom came from. It really never meant anything but quality back then.
D: Yeah. And there was a little sugar content, because it softened it. We had a sweet tooth back in those days, you know?
T: That’s very important. Like you’re saying, the second edition of your book, you’re calling out specific brands and it speaks to what you’ve been talking about there. Which is that if we just focus on gin, the category has not only exploded in terms of the number of brands, but the styles that we’re seeing. London Dry being the one that would have, I’m assuming, in your original first edition there is what you were thinking of. Now, whether you want to call it New Western or whatever, the category’s just exploded. The idea of terroir and producers trying to capture that. It’s interesting, and I’m not just saying this because you’ve done some work with them, is Hendrick’s the one that kicks all of that off? Just in terms of, back in the day with the English Garden and some new botanicals in there. Or I’m going to throw out a theory here. It’s interesting because gin in the U.K. is very different to gin here, just in terms of its popularity, or the market that drinks it. This is my theory. Two of the most important products in the past 20 years in the gin market have been Hendrick’s and then Fever-Tree, which isn’t a gin, but that’s from a British perspective. First of all, how do you feel about the idea of Hendrick’s, and what’s your take on my terrible theory there?
D: I mean, I actually believe that Hendrick’s really was a pioneer. If you want to talk about who first started to crack the monopoly that vodka had from 1970 until 1999, it probably was Bombay Sapphire. They said, “These are the 13 botanicals,” and they showed them on the label. But it was much less botanical-driven than any other gin on the market. A whole bunch of things about the advertising, like the blue bottle, really did end up bringing a couple of gin drinkers over to that category. So they had a small part to play, but in fact, it was really Hendrick’s which totally stepped away from that juniper/your grandfather’s liquor closet smell that young people had been driven away from. It really seemed as though it wasn’t even really gin in the sense that it wasn’t driven by juniper. And it was delicious. It had amazing floral and lovely aromatics going for it. It was such a good ingredient for a base in cocktails. Yes, indeed, I believe you’re correct. It was a pioneer moving us away from what was a pretty narrow market at the time.
T: I mentioned the second part of that, Fever-Tree, just in terms of bringing the Gin & Tonic back or making it a younger person’s drink. That was my experience of it. We’ve had Simon Ford on the show before talking about that specific cocktail. So there’s a deep dive there, if folks want to listen to that a little bit more. But this gin landscape right now is incredible. It’s funny that both Bombay and Hendrick’s are the gins that we mentioned there, and those are the ones that stray away from the very juniper-forward profile, which is the thing that defines gin. If I can wrap this back to the 50/50, though, and the modern iteration of that, or maybe that first one that Audrey served you, what was it about that cocktail that struck you? What are you looking for when you have that drink? Because like you say, it’s a choice. It’s not your normal Martini. You’re making the decision to have a 50/50. So what are you looking for there?
D: First of all, along with all the other improvements in the world of spirits, vermouth is no exception. We have really crossed over now to probably the most interesting time in the history of vermouth as a category. We’ve got so many vermouths on the market, old companies like Martini & Rossi — they don’t like to be called that anymore, they call themselves Martini now — Cinzano, Carpano, these guys are coming out with new and old bottlings. And they’re promoting them across the board, the bigger ones. And then there are the smaller ones, the Spanish vermouths that are coming on market. It’s really a lovely thing to see. What does that do? It brings the other half of the equation. I’m even using blanc style rather than dry style. I started doing that when Martini came out with Ambrato Reserva. That is, to me, driven by such amazing spice notes that I don’t care if it’s slightly sweeter. I want it in a Martini. Punch Magazine asked me, “What is your favorite Martini recipe?” And at that time, I was drinking 3-1 Beefeater and Ambrato. And I threw that out there, and I think I put a dash of bitters in it. They did a tasting of a whole bunch of different Martini recipes thrown at them by a whole bunch of different people, and that one won because of Ambrato, I’m totally convinced. So what do we have? We have half and half. If the other half of the equation is really interesting — wow. We already have amazingly interesting gins out there. If you turn that other half of that equation into a world of possibilities, which is what we have, now all of a sudden, the strong stirred category of a spirit and fortified wine additive has opened the doors to literally hundreds and hundreds of variations. With all these new fruits and new gins. That’s another thing driving my interest in this 50/50. Or if you want 2-1, if you don’t want to go that far, go 2-1 and see where we’re going.
T: We’re going all the way today, Dale. We’re going 50/50.
D: And then throw my bitters in. I made my bitters so I could try out tiki drinks. I made an allspice bitters because the allspice liqueur I was using for flavor in cocktails was gone from the market — Wray & Nephew — back in the ’90s. At the end of the ’90s I said, “Well, let me make a real bitter version of allspice.” I can use it in my tiki drinks because they’re always too sweet. And I worked with Ted Breau over the period of two years back and forth, mainly because we were both busy. He was the chemist, I was the taster. I sent him my original recipe, which he completely changed because I was pretty much getting what I could get on Bleecker Street at the botanical store. Sicily was where you got your anise from, so he knew how to do it. We ended up with this wonderful mega bitter. I would tell bartenders not to taste it, but to smell it between their hands. And I thought, “OK, I’ll put it in my Rum Punches.” But then I tried it one time in a Manhattan, and my Swedish Manhattan suddenly was a bone-dry Manhattan, even though I used sweet vermouth in it. I thought, “Oh, interesting, a couple of drops of this bitters can dry that Manhattan out like that.” Then I started doing tastings of bitters in a basic Manhattan, you know, the same as I did with the Martinis. I blew the minds of a lot of bartenders by changing the couple of drops of bitters in that drink, you could totally change that drink. I think bitters now have come into the 50/50 Martini in a very large way. Originally, orange bitters was the call in the 19th century. Well, I’m using my own bitters in it and I like it. I like the spiced punch that comes from my bitters. If I’m using Ambrato, I probably don’t use it like that because it’s got a spice on it. Genever is so malt-driven that it likes sweet vermouth almost more than it likes dry vermouth. David Wondrich taught us that. He said that the original Genever, which was the gin of the middle of the 19th century, just in terms of what came through the Port of New York. So what was being drunk in those days was a kind of a malt-driven gin. If you want to think of it as a white dog whiskey, in the sense that it was very malty. That kind of heavy whiskey style doesn’t really like dry vermouth, but it likes sweet vermouth.
T: That makes sense.
D: So I started using a little bit of a really good Torino Sweet Vermouth along with my dry vermouth in my 100 percent malt 50/50. And that, to me, just exploded into such a wonderful drink. Made it for Philip Duff on my front porch. It’s in that recipe file I gave you. Let’s go down to that file here.
T: I will just note here as well that all of the episodes of “Cocktail College” that we publish, we also publish a transcript on the VinePair website. With your permission, Dale, I’d love to publish those recipes on there so folks can refer to them after listening to the show.
D: Absolutely. And you can take out the Orbium for the dry vermouth and put in your favorite dry gin. I used that because I was engaged by the company to tell this story, so I wanted to use their product in as many of these. They did not force me to use their product exclusively because you’ll notice that in that list is Ransom’s Old Tom gin. In that list is 100 percent malt Genever Old Duff. So they were not heavy duty about it. They wanted me to do the evolution properly.
T: The evolution of the Martini.
D: Yeah, and so I did. Now that I’m making the 100 percent malt as a Martini — that was as a fancy gin cocktail in that list — I’m using three parts of Torino and Cocchi Torino Stout, red. I was using the Carpano Bianco, but then I slipped over to a wine-ier dry and went to the Chambery style, which is the Dolin. That was a popular style at the end of the 19th century in this country.
T: Just to tie into some of the things we’re speaking about earlier there, now that we’re talking about vermouth, I think an interesting part of this conversation is that we saw bartender-founded gins. I mentioned Simon Ford. The individual who founded Aviation wasn’t Ryan Reynolds, but wasn’t the original founder also a bartender?
D: Ryan Magarian.
T: And he was a bartender?
D: He was a bartender. He came out of a really interesting food lab in Seattle called Kathy Casey’s Kitchen. He was an apprentice at Casey’s, so he learned a lot about flavor, a lot about botanicals, a lot about spices in that job. Then when he got behind the bar, he wanted to do a Northwestern gin using Northwestern botanicals and especially lavender. And that’s where that came from.
T: That really ties into that profile we’re speaking about, the New Western. But then we see the next step in the story, which is these days I’m starting to see bartender-driven vermouth. Which makes a lot of sense and ties into this the concept of the 50/50 Martini and that gaining in prominence. Again, you’re talking about the importance of vermouth there. I believe Chris Battino and Stacey Stenton have worked on a brand. I know there are others out there. I forget the names of them, so I’m sorry for that. But I think that’s interesting, too. Because if that’s equal parts in the cocktail we’re talking about today, then the vermouth needs to be on point, as you talk about there. It only makes sense that bartenders would have this as an ingredient they’re using, so they would design it for their needs. Just as Simon Ford did with his gin.
D: Ted Breaux, my partner in the bitters company and I, are only about a half a year away from releasing a bitter aperitivo and an amaro. The next product, maybe a year later, will probably be vermouth.
T: Amazing. Heard it here first, folks. Excited for that.
D: It’ll be under the name DeGroff, same as the bitters.
T: Before we move on here, how much do you think that bartenders embracing sherry has played into the modern fortunes of this cocktail? Because that’s a wonderful ingredient you can use in a 50/50 for that nuttier style of a Martini. Do you think that it also helped the resurgence of the 50/50?
D: By the way, fino sherry as a Martini ingredient has a pretty long history. I went to work at the Hotel Bel-Air in 1978, which was one of the great hotels in the world at the time. I actually didn’t deserve to be behind the bar, I didn’t have anywhere near enough skill to be there, but I lied my way into the gig. I was a quick study. But the owner of the hotel who didn’t live six months longer after I got the gig, his name was Joseph Drown and he was a protégé of Conrad Hilton. He had built the hotel during the Second World War, actually illegally, because he wasn’t supposed to be using those materials for anything but the war effort. He opened it in the late ’40s in Bel-Air in Stone Canyon, in a property that had been Alfonso Belle’s stables, and then the Catholic Church had bought it after that. Then he ended up buying the stables and turning a lot of those same buildings into what became a very beautiful luxury hotel. He drank his Martini in a very specific way, which they taught me day one, because I was on the day shift. That’s when Joe came in. He had a small see-through, a ramekin. Ramekins are those ribbed side dishes that you’d put things in, like a brûlée or custard. In that was crushed ice and then about a 4-ounce cruet glass and then a chilled Martini glass. When you brought the drink with this in the mixing glass, you would pour a little bit into his chilled glass and the rest of it into the carafe that was in the crushed ice on the side. It wasn’t made with vermouth, it was made with fino sherry. The glass was seasoned with fino sherry. A bartender at another Hollywood block, if you will, called Chasen’s, probably heard about that Martini. It was Joe’s favorite. That was an exclusive hotel with only 68 rooms and you couldn’t get a room there unless you had already stayed there. Figure that one out. Actually, what happened was that the most luminary in the neighborhood was Howard Hughes. When the hotel opened, Howard Hughes bought half of the rooms and used them only as guest rooms for his friends and the other half were open to the rest of the public. It was that drink that was probably sexy because it was the Hotel Bel-Air. The Hotel-Bel Air is where you went not to be seen. The Beverly Hills Hotel is where you went to be seen. And you couldn’t get into the hotel rooms anyway. It was a tough call. So you had your captains of business and the guys who owned the studios who went to the Bel-Air, and it was the actors and the writers who went to Beverly Hills. Lore has it that Dean Martin walked in to the head bartender at Chasen’s and said, “Pepe, I don’t know why I don’t have my own drink after all these years.” And he said, “Mr. Martin, the next time you walk through that door, I’m going to have something for you.” And what did he do? He took a glass, seasoned it with flamed orange peels — that’s where I got the idea for the Rainbow Room, by the way — all in the inside of the glass, fino sherry-seasoned glass, and vodka, shaken. No gin at all. Dean Martin apparently went back and went nuts for it. So did the rest of the Rat Pack. If you want to take a step further to go to the nuttier style sherries, like a dry oloroso, now you’re getting into the sweet vermouth category. You’re seeing that happening — less than with the fino sherry — but you’re seeing that happening. So there’s history for that, too.
T: Love to hear that Dean Martin story. I mean, what a character. Interesting. Live at the Sands is a favorite of mine. If anyone wants to go out there and listen to that album, I think it’s on YouTube. Dean Martin, live from the bar. That’s what they always said. Interesting guy. So that would have been what, vodka and no vermouth? In that one, we’re literally one only using the fino sherry rinse on the glass, and that’s it?
D: Totally. Fino sherry and all that orange oil.
T: All that orange. Which again, has a real drastic effect on the cocktail.
D: Well, sherry and orange are not an uncommon pair in dishes.
T: Was there a name for this drink?
D: The Flame of Love.
T: The Flame of Love. I know what I’m making tonight. This has essentially been, as we’ve spoken about many times, the evolution of the Martini here. We are going to put the 50/50 Martini as the episode title here. We’ve spoken about all the different ingredients here. We’re going to publish the other recipes that you’ve come armed with today. But can I ask you for your definitive — or the definitive of the moment for you — 50/50 Martini recipe? And can you speak to us through the preparation as if you were making it for us today on the show?
D: I’ve now graduated to the one I kind of began to describe to you already. I am OK with it, with Ransom’s Old Tom. It’s my favorite of all the Old Toms on the market. I started making it with that. I tasted it with Philip Duff’s Old Duff, and I like it equally well with that. So you could take either one of those gins as your starting point for the 50 percent. Now, the other 50 percent is going to be divided into two parts. Two parts are the Vermouth di Torino that we discussed from Cocchi. The other half is divided in a 2-1 ratio between the Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and your favorite dry. I started out using Carpano Bianco. I am now using Dolin Dry. But actually, any really, really good dry vermouth or any good blanc is going to work. The only two I consider to be really good are Ambrato and Carpano Blanc. I consider those to be head and shoulders above everybody else’s blanc. Usually one of those, or use a dry.
D: I like those too, because the spiciness overcomes the fact that they’re a little bit sweeter. And besides, it’s only one part against the two parts of the sweet vermouth.
T: Would that be one and a half ounces of the gin component, and then one and a half?
D: One and then a half basically. So on my bitter side, I’m using a dash of Dale DeGroff’s Aromatic Bitters. I got to warn people that we’ve moved production of my bitters to Sazerac Louisville Distillery in Louisville, Ky. And after a year and a half, we’ve been contacted by the TTB, which now thinks that our aromatic bitters is no longer a food additive, but it’s a beverage. We’re not happy about that. We’re in court defending our position, since we’ve been on the market for almost nine years now as a food additive. And why all of a sudden has it changed in their minds when we’re using all the same ingredients? So it’s a really tough moment to be in. But as a disclaimer, we don’t have much on the market right now. Whatever’s out there is out there. Until we’re back into production at Sazerac, which is totally up to the TTB, if ever, if they decide that they’re not going to relent, then we’re out of business. But the amaro that we’re making in partnership with Hood River Distillery to grow will be based on the flavor profile of my bitters with much more added fruit element and some other spice elements as well. So anyway, you’re going to get my bitters and add a dash. That’s well stirred, chilled, and poured. I honestly haven’t really garnished it. But if you were going to use a garnish, I might go with an orange peel over a lemon peel. But I like the drink just the way it is. Because of the small amount of Vermouth di Torino, you’re getting a rosy, copper look to the drink. It’s not that dark, but a rosy amber. Maybe that would be a better way to describe it. It’s just a lovely drink with great aromatics, whether you do it with the malt or whether you do it with a Ransom Old Tom — or your favorite Old Tom. I highly recommend it.
T: What’s the preferred glassware for yourself?
D: The Nick & Nora.
T: Didn’t Robert Simonson recently publish a story on that, about yourself, for VinePair?
D: He did. There’s a good story behind Nick & Nora. I’ll give it to you quickly because I don’t know how much time we have left. But when we opened the Rainbow Room in 1987, Joe wanted dishes with tradition and cocktails with tradition. He did not want me to get creative. He wanted classics that had been lost. I did get creative later down the road, but I have the beginning menu here, just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. One of our opening menus: the Algonquin, the Americano, the Between the Sheets, the Bronx, the Coffee Cocktail, the Colony, the Flamingo, the Floradora, the Jack Rose, the Manhattan, Margarita, Martini, Moscow Mule, Negroni, Old Fashioned, Pink Lady, Planter’s Punch, Ramos Fizz, Sazerac, Sidecar, Stork Club, South Side, and 20th Century. This is a 1987 menu. It was $4.50 for a drink at the Rainbow Room.
T: Very nice.
D: I had to take this menu out of service six months in because I hadn’t really realized how labor-intensive it was.
T: I was going to say it’s a pretty good list of drinks right there.
D: That first year, we were doing $27 million gross, and I didn’t get any friends and family to warm up to the menu. Although we had a good two months of practice moving into it, I really had to create some systems to make the menu work and shorten the menu a bit. But you can see that these are original classics. And that’s what Joe wanted. So I went to Joe and I said, “Joe, I want a glass for the drink. Not all of them. I’m going to use the V for the Martini and the Manhattan and all those.” I said, “But I got the 20th Century, and I’ve got the Stork Club, Flamingo, Colony. I think we need a glass with tradition. I’d like to go searching.” He said, “Go over to Minter’s Designs. It’s on the East Side.” And I looked it up. Sadly, it’s not there anymore. I went in cold and said, “We’re involved in the restoration of the Rainbow Room. It’s on top of Rockefeller Center. I’m looking for a glass with traditional stem.” I said, “Do you remember ‘The Thin Man’ movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy? I want that glass. It wasn’t a V on a stem, it was a little bowl, but smaller than the big Martinis they’re using now. And I’m looking for that glass.” And they said, “Well, it sounds familiar. You’d have to go through the old and rare catalog.” They gave me a Xerox copy of it. And they said, “But as a disclaimer, we have to tell you, if you choose anything from this catalog, there are no molds left for this catalog. This is all early 20th century stuff. So you’re going to have to build the molds and it ain’t gonna be cheap. So I hope you’re going to make a lot of these.” And I said, “It’s the Rainbow Room, don’t worry.” I found this thing called the “Little Martini” and I said, “This is it. This is the Nick & Nora glass I was telling you about. This is the glass I want. Make the molds.” Over the years, as I would order it, I just wrote Nick & Nora because my sales guy knew what I meant. Instead of Little Martini. Fast forward up to when we lost our lease at the Rainbow Room in 1999, I opened a little place called Blackbird. I brought Audrey in to work with me for the first time, side-by-side with me. I couldn’t use her at the Rainbow Room because it was a Local 6 union, a very strong union place. I had been using her for pro bono stuff, but I wanted to work with her and I brought her into this little Blackbird. That had been Aurora, the first fine-dining restaurant where I worked for Joe. I brought Nick & Nora into that establishment also, and she fell in love with it. When she opened Pegu Club three years later, she went to Minter’s and said, “I want this Nick & Nora glass.” And that’s really where the craft movement found out about it, at her bar. She was calling it Nick & Nora. And then Steelite buys the old catalog from Minter’s, and they don’t call it the Little Martini. They call it, for the first time in print, Nick & Nora. Which made me very happy.
T: Dale DeGroff, you got your bitters, you got your Nick & Nora Glass here. You got your vermouth coming down the line, the amaro.
D: Everybody makes that now. Everybody from Minter’s to Libbey. You can buy a Nick & Nora glass anywhere in the market.
T: You didn’t want to go in there on royalties there, at some point in the beginning? That would have been a good idea.
D: I wasn’t a mogul type, and I didn’t think of those kinds of avenues, unfortunately. I had enough stuff to worry about, actually, just managing what I was managing.
T: But what I mean to say by that is, what a storied career it’s been thus far. Any final thoughts we should mention on the 50/50 before we leap before the final part of the show here, where we’re going to get to know you a little bit more as a drinker and as a bartender with our recurring questions?
D: Well, I’m going to show you something. And I know that the people can’t see it, but I’m going to show it to you. This is going to be the bottle design for my new products. It’s made by Bormioli, the glass company in Italy. It’s round at the top and square at the bottom.
T: Am I allowed to describe some of this here for the listeners?
D: It’s not ready for that.
T: All right, folks. Well, I’ll just tell you now, this is a very attractive bottle that’s coming down the line. You heard it here, and I’m excited to taste it.
D: The first quarter of 2023, we’re counting on that as the release date.
T: Well, how about it? Let’s kick off these final questions to end this wonderful chat today.
D: All right. Let me see if I can find what I said. I did say some stuff.
T: Question No. 1, as is customary: What style or category of drink typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
D: Well, I don’t have a back bar anymore. I have a back bar in my home. But right now, digestifs and aperitivos, both for obvious reasons. There are gins and agave spirits, followed by brandies, followed by American whiskeys.
T: Nice little collection there. That’s definitely a well-stocked bar, as I’m sure most folks would hope and imagine for yourself there. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or two do you believe is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
D: Well, I’ve always used a Boston shaker that was a 16-ounce glass covered by a 22-ounce stainless steel top. The craft movement, pretty much starting with Sasha Petraske, went metal on metal. Sasha did it because he thought it made it a colder drink and it kept everything chilled. He was using pint glasses to begin with and he kept them frozen, and he went through them so fast he couldn’t get them cold enough, fast enough. So he said, “Well, let me just use metal for both parts.” That has become the two-handed shake where you snap the bottoms of the metal against each other, and it’s really become signature. That’s great if you are a person who jiggers everything. If you’re not, the beauty of the 16-ounce pint glass was that the only way we could keep consistency in our sours and other drinks was as we could see, before the ice went in, the line with each added ingredient. Let me give you an example with a sour. We would put in a three-quarter-ounce pour of the sour ingredient in the bottom of that glass. You needed to learn what that looked like as a bartender at the Rainbow Room, and these are the things we practiced. Then, you needed to double the amount of that liquid with the sweet ingredient. Then, you need to double the amount of that existIng mixture — the sweet and sour — with the strong ingredients. That would give you a perfect sour. And we could not jigger. Do you know why we didn’t jigger back in 1987 in NYC at the Rainbow Room? Because nobody in Midtown Manhattan in a fancy cocktail lounge ever picked up a jigger. Why? Because the only people who picked up jiggers were the neighborhood bars. And the jiggers were three-quarter ounces. The bottom was so thick, you thought you were getting an ounce, and three-quarters of an ounce would be a thick bottom. Everybody immediately perceived jiggering as cheap: “Don’t go to that bar.”.
D: So in Midtown, we had a bucket glass. And if you were to pour a customer a Scotch on the rocks, you’d better be pouring 2-2 ½ ounces, or they would come to your bar for free-pour. On top of Kold Draft ice cubes, which were the ones that were still around when I started tending bar in 1974. That is a lost thing. If you want to be a free-pour bar or if you’re not into heavy sugaring, in other words, if you’re not making all the very fancy drinks that require very precise jiggering, you need to learn how to use the glass and metal Boston shakers. I’m talking like the old guy now.
T: It’s so funny to get that perspective, that jiggering was seen as lower than free-pouring. We mentioned at the start, everything that’s old becomes new again. But also, everything always flips, too. There’s always the action and the reaction. It’s fun to look back on. Also for the ingredient, I think we can just add Dale DeGroff’s Bitters for the undervalued. And definitely stock up on those while we still can.
T: Question number three: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
D: Don’t underestimate your ability to change the world, one customer at a time. That was Gaz Regan.
T: For people like yourself that have seen this cocktail movement evolve in real time, looking back, that must have been what the task was; person by person.
D: Well, the task was, for me, working for Joe Bohm. It was very easy because Joe told me what I was expected to do. I was expected to make friends out of difficult people. And I was also expected to tell the stories, because I knew the stories. That’s another show.
T: We’ll definitely have to have you on for Part 2 someday to hear that. Wise words, though. I enjoy that. Question No. 4: If you could only visit one last bar in your life — can be past or present, this is a hypothetical question here — which one would it be?
D: I can’t say that it’s a bar. There are too many lovely bars around the world. What I would say is that I’m a person that really goes to bartenders more than I go to bars. I would go to a bar where Doug Quinn is behind it. To me, he’s one of the best bartenders working today in any country, in any city. He had Hudson Malone in Manhattan. Before that he was at P.J. Clarke’s and now he’s got Hudson Malone in Westport, Conn. He’s not the only bartender that I would choose, but he’s one of the top 10. So for me, it wouldn’t be about the bar. It would be about the bartender. Why do you go to a bar? I mean, the bar is only as interesting as the people that are in it and the people that are behind it.
T: That reminds me of something, and I’ve got to ask you this. I forget who told me about this, but in the early dot-com era, was there not a website that tracked where bartenders were working in New York at the time so that people could follow them and go and visit them wherever they happened to be working on that given night?
D: That was called Fortune Magazine. There was a writer named Bill Flanagan who used to periodically, once a year, talk about all the best bartenders in Manhattan. That was the analog version. But maybe there may have been a website.
T: I’m sure there was.
D: If there was, maybe Bill started it because he was still alive then.
T: Good idea. Maybe some valid safety concerns there; I’m not sure. But I’m sure folks would appreciate that these days. And if anyone listening does remember that, please reach out and let us know, because I think that’s an interesting tale. Final question here for you, Dale: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you make or order?
D: Right at the top of the list would be the one that we describe today, my favorite 50/50 Martini. Followed by the Negroni, I guess. That’s equally interesting because of all the ingredients, for a lot of the same reasons.
T: And a bonus question for you: When you think of the Negroni, I’m not saying change the ingredients, but do you think of it as a gin cocktail? It’s often in the gin cocktail section of books and whatnot. But is it a gin cocktail in your mind, philosophically?
D: No, not really. Because the father of the Negroni is the Americano. It was really a bitter aperitivo-style long drink to begin with. It’s only Count Camillo Negroni who turned it into a gin cocktail.
T: Very nice. Well, thanks again. Like I said at the top of the show, we’re in the presence of cocktail royalty here today — the true royalty that matters. No disrespect to the Windsors. Dale, thanks for joining us. I look forward to having you back again someday.
D: Big fun, Tim. Thank you.
T: Thank you very much.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
The article The Cocktail College Podcast: How to Make the Perfect 50/50 Martini appeared first on VinePair.
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