DrinkWire is Liquor.com's showcase for the best articles, recipe and reviews from the web's top writers and bloggers. In this post, "G-LO" from It's Just the Booze Dancing talks with "King Cocktail" Dale DeGroff about the state of the cocktail industry.
Gerald Mosslinger, Dale DeGroff, and Francisco Fernandez
In early November, Mrs. G-LO, The Boys, and I went on a 4-night cruise aboard Holland America Line’s (HAL) brand new ship, the ms Koningsdam. Although the ship launched this past April, our cruise was this ship’s maiden voyage in the United States.
A couple weeks prior to sailing, I reached out to HAL’s PR Department and asked if I could arrange for an interview with the Food and Beverage management aboard the ship. It turns out that my timing was perfect. Since many of HAL’s senior management were going to be aboard for this cruise, an interview was scheduled with Dale DeGroff (aka King Cocktail), who is working on HAL’s cocktail program as a consultant), Francisco Fernandez (Senior Manager, Beverage and Signature Services at HAL), and Gerald Mosslinger (Vice President, Food and Beverage at HAL).
Without further ado, here goes the interview…
Dale DeGroff’s Perfect Perfect Manhattan
Question #1: Whenever we go out to a bar or restaurant, we always pay close attention to the cocktail menu. There’s no shortage of intricately crafted cocktails out there! Do you think bartenders have gone too far and perhaps over complicated things with their cocktail offerings just for the sake of over complicating things?
Dale: I think so. I like to draw a parallel to Nouvelle Cuisine. You would be served two sea scallops with 12 colored dots on a flat, fifteen inch plate. This was your main course. You would ask, “Where’s the leek and the carrot?” and the waiter would say, “The leek is this dot and the carrot is that dot”. It was a ridiculous and awkward beginning to what has become an extraordinary culinary explosion. Really great food and plenty of it! I think that we, the craft bartenders, so heady with all this knowledge, wanted to share it with the guests, and the guests frankly didn’t give a crap. They just wanted to have fun and didn’t want someone telling them how they made their syrup of rosemary and mango. Much like with Nouvelle Cuisine, there was an awkward time for us as well, but I think we’ve gotten past it. I see a lot of bartenders realizing that they have to carry vodka because that’s what people want, and they’ll occasionally have to make a Cosmopolitan or a Malibu Bay Breeze. This is what they have to do if they want to be in business and actually make money. A little speakeasy with 16 seats is great, but I’m sorry to say that you’ll never make a living. It was fun for awhile when you were getting started in the business, but at a certain point, you’re going to have a family and you gotta make a buck. When you open a bar, you have to let the neighborhood tell you what you’re gonna do if you want to be successful. Do your thing, be creative, but don’t discourage the neighborhood when they come in. Welcome them. You chose that neighborhood. These are your customers.
Dale: Right! In Manhattan you can get specialized because there are enough people that can buy into your particular brand. So yes, I think we’ve gotten past the awkward phase and people are finally back to providing service and not just providing a lecture with every 15 minutes-to-prepare round of drinks.
Question #2: Notes, HAL’s whisky bar concept that debuted on the Koningsdam: The whisky selection looks fantastic. Is there someone guiding you through a tasting, or do you just order a flight and drink it at your leisure?
Gerald: We took the approach that the guest can pretty much do whatever they want. We have prepared tasting mats. We serve every single whisky neat in a glass that is rounded on the bottom with the idea that as the ship rocks, the whisky rocks, and hopefully you get some notes from the whisky, hence the name of the bar which also goes with the music theme of the ship. You also get some ice cubes and a bottle of Fiji water, which is extremely soft as you know, and it’s really the perfect match to go along with the whisky.
G-LO: Are you doing this aboard other ships in the HAL fleet or is this exclusive to the Koningsdam?
Gerald: This was the first ship in which we did this, but since it’s been so successful, we did a mini version of Notes in our Gallery Bar aboard the Oosterdam. We have more than 140 different whiskies on this ship.
G-LO: This is easily the largest whisky selection that I’ve ever seen aboard a cruise ship. Most ships that I’ve been on have a small selection of whiskies with maybe one or two special drams. There might be a Laphroaig or something like that to appeal to a whisky fanatic or two, but most of the choices have usually been brands with mass appeal like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Glenlivet, or something along those lines. With the Notes concept, you really seem to be going after people with an above average interest in whisky.
Gerald: We really wanted that because for us it’s not just about the cruising. We want to immerse our guests in the experience and educate them. For those that want to learn about whisky, Notes gives them the perfect opportunity to do that. It’s really funny when you go down there and look at the dynamics of the entire bar. It usually starts out with just a couple of people that start chatting, and then another few people join. The bar was strategically placed in a very dynamic part of the ship. You see people stopping by to see what Notes is all about. Then they start talking and the bar becomes a hub that really draws people in. I was very surprised to see lots of female customers as well. I spoke with one of the women that stopped by and they said that they usually drink vodka, but after talking to a few people she gave some whisky a try and said that it was really fun.
G-LO: Is Notes something that was asked for by customers via surveys or did you look at trends and decide to give the concept a try?
Gerald: We looked at trends, and to tell you the truth, it wasn’t planned at the very beginning. We pretty much created the concept over a six month period prior to the launch of the ship. We originally planned to have a manumatic wine machine where customers could pour their own wine using their key cards, but the more we thought about it, the more we thought that it would be way more fun to use this space for whisky. Francisco came to me with the idea for Notes and I told him to run with it. I think he did a fantastic job pulling it all together.
G-LO: I haven’t tried it yet. It’s on my list.
Gerald: You gotta try it!
Francisco: Another thing I’d like to add is that we set the whisky menu up on iPads and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of laying it all out. It’s basically broken down in every way that you want to slice it and dice it. You can browse by price, geographic region, flavor profile, country of origin, or anything else you can think of. We like to think of it as educational while you browse on the iPad and make your selections.
G-LO: So it’s not a preset flight? Can you pretty much do whatever you want, i.e. create your own flight?
Francisco: The flights are pre-set (there are four with set pricing), but you can mix and match different whiskies however you want and create your own flight if that’s what you want to do.
Gerald: The really cool thing is that once you pick your whisky, you can email yourself the tasting notes or send them to your friends so that they know what you’re having. It’s interactive, educational, and just ties it all together.
G-LO: I like the sound of that! I’ll definitely pay Notes a visit.
Passion Blossom 13 Cocktail Paired with a Tuna Tartare and Salmon Parfait
Question #3: I’ve been to a few dinners over the years where a bar or restaurant prepares a tasting menu that pairs wine or beer with a variety of dishes. Do you think that there’s a trend emerging where cocktails are more often paired with food?
Dale: I think it’s an absolute trend right now. I was just upstairs in a class with the bartenders discussing a business plan for young people trying to get into the business without a big investment. There are lots of these small bites and cocktail places. You don’t have a kitchen. You don’t have a chef. You don’t have six waiters. You have two cocktail waitresses. You have a pantry. You have a cook. And then you have the bartenders. And you serve interesting small dishes that you can make in a pantry, or bring food in from the outside. Flavorful dishes that are paired with really interesting drinks that are culinary driven because all of the ingredients that you find in a kitchen herb garden are ending up in cocktails. So yes, I think that food and cocktail pairings is definitely a thing. You see it with young professionals in big cities where they’re grazing from cocktail bar to cocktail bar, eating really interesting food and drinking small cocktails, not big cocktails.
G-LO: This sounds similar to what I’ve heard happens in Milan. I have family there, and I’ve been there a few times, but I’ve never had the opportunity to experience the Milanese Style Happy Hour. My understanding is that many restaurants will serve cocktails like a Negroni or a Negroni Sbagliato (or maybe just glasses of Prosecco) along with a wide variety of small bites and appetizers.
Dale: Exactly. They’ll serve charcuterie, cheese, and all kinds of other delightful little bites that go really well with those cocktails.
Gerald: From an owner/operator perspective, it’s a fantastic business model, because if you do what Dale has just described, you’re also keeping your labor costs down.
Dale: Absolutely! Your labor costs. Construction costs. All of your opening and build out costs will be a tenth of what it would cost to build a true restaurant. It’s a great way to get into the business and you’re serving stuff that has the lowest cost of sales. I was talking about this concept because we were just going over the Blood and Sand (and several other food friendly drinks), which is a very meat friendly cocktail. I know this recipe is going to sound crazy. Orange juice, Scotch, Sweet Vermouth, and Cherry Heering. Equal parts. Shaken very hard. Served up with an orange peel over the top. It’s an absolutely brilliant drink.
G-LO: This is an old drink.
Dale: It’s a very old drink that was created for Rudolph Valentino’s movie of the same name, and it’s gone on to become a drink that’s appeared in most of the classic cocktail books. It’s a drink that’s food friendly with meat dishes, venison, anything with a fruit sauce on it, game dishes, etc.. It’s a brilliant combination that’s almost better than wine.
G-LO: I have another question…
Dale: When you ask me a question, you’re going to get yourself in trouble because I’m going to give you a really long answer and you’re only going to get three questions in.
G-LO: Ha! My apologies for the long and involved questions. I didn’t want to just get a bunch of yes and no answers. That doesn’t make for a very interesting interview.
Dale: I’m kidding! I’m kidding! Go ahead…
Question #4: I’ve seen many TV shows over the years that focus on the lives of chefs. Anthony Bourdain has hosted or produced many of these programs (The Layover, No Reservations, Parts Unknown, The Mind of a Chef). In many cases, they go to places that serve simple, well prepared food like pho, sushi, ramen, or something else along those lines. Where do bartenders go when they finish working behind the bar, or are you so exhausted that you just go home?
Dale: We pretty much go to the same places. When we used to finish up at The Rainbow Room, we would go to Blue Ribbon on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. Blue Ribbon was run by a brother and sister along with their cousin. They had everything from a Pu Pu Platter to Fondue to Thai Fish Soup to steak. It was a crazy menu but everybody loved it, and the best thing was that they served dinner right up until 4AM. Even if they couldn’t serve drinks after that, they would stay open until 5AM so that you could stay and finish your meal. Blue Ribbon is where my cocktail dinner idea came from. I had a regular routine whenever I went there. I’d walk in and order a Lagavulin. Then I’d order a Thai Fish Soup and have it with an Alsatian Gewurztraminer. And then I’d go home. One night, there was a new waiter, so I ordered my Lagavulin, but instead of some lag time to enjoy my drink, my soup came out immediately. I skipped the wine and had my whisky along with the soup which was made with smoked fish. So I’m drinking the Lagavulin and I’m tasting the smoked fish, and I’m thinking, “Get out of here. This is incredible!”. It was a fantastic combination! And that’s what got me thinking about pairing food with cocktails back in 1992.
Question #5: What do you drink if you’re not having a cocktail or a glass of wine?
G-LO: Is that your favorite drink?
Dale: No, no. I have a very eclectic palate. I’m a Gin Martini drinker if I’m just session drinking or having a cocktail before dinner, but having said that, if I’m traveling, I’m drinking the specialty of wherever I am. A Sazerac or a Vieux Carre in New Orleans. Rum in Barbados or Cuba. I like everything. I’m also a Scotch drinker and will have different kinds depending upon my mood.
Gerald: My favorite cocktail is the Negroni and I really like the different versions of it. I also really like whisky now, especially since my involvement in creating Notes.
Dale: The Negroni has really taken off, hasn’t it? Everybody is drinking them.
G-LO: It really has. I had my first one a few years ago at a place called The Continental in Philly.
Dale: What’s bizarre is that maybe 10 years ago, nobody drank Negronis.
G-LO: A couple of years ago, my wife and I took a 3-day Disney cruise. Since we didn’t have the kids with us on this trip, we were able to have dinner at the upcharge Italian restaurant aboard the ship. When the waitress came over to take me drink order, I asked for a Negroni, but she had no idea what I was talking about.
Dale: It’s Disney! What did you expect?
Gerald: You should have asked for a soda!
G-LO: Oh come on! This was the upcharge Italian restaurant. How do you not know what a Negroni is? So I told the woman how to make it and she brought one over.
Dale: They had Campari???
G-LO: They did! So it worked out pretty well.
Gerald: We have a Negroni featured in our Italian restaurant, Canaletto.
G-LO: What’s different about this Negroni?
Gerald: We use Carpano Antica. For me, that really makes the drink.
G-LO: Carpano Antica is a little on the sweet side, but it’s really good.
Dale: It’s got that vanilla note to it which I love.
G-LO: If you had to choose between Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes in a Negroni, which do you prefer?
Dale: Punt e Mes is from the same company and it’s just a little spicier. It doesn’t have the strong vanilla note that the Antica has. I use Punt e Mes in Manhattans, more than I would in a Negroni. It makes an interesting Manhattan.
G-LO: Do you go with Rye or Bourbon?
Dale: Rye. I’m a Rye guy. It’s New York. New York was a Rye town. We were closer to Maryland than we were to Kentucky.
We hope that you enjoyed this exclusive interview with Dale, Gerald, and Francisco! While there are five questions listed up above, we actually asked six. The last question, which was referenced in our B Beet Spirit post, involves the naming of one of our B Beet Spirit cocktail creations. Dale gave us a really great and highly detailed answer, but in order to make this post a bit more reader friendly (i.e. shorter), we decided to omit it from the text. For those of you that like their interviews unfiltered and uncut, the sixth question (it starts at around the 22:40 mark) along with a few other tangents that didn’t make it into this post, are included in the YouTube video.
Many thanks to Dale, Gerald, and Francisco for taking the time to speak with me, and thank you to Veronica of HAL’s Public Relations Department for helping to make this happen!
Filed under: Booze Banter, Booze Dancing TV, Cocktails Tagged: Bartending, Cocktails, Cruising, Dale DeGroff, Drinking, Drinkwire, Holland America Lines, Interview, ms Koningsdam, Photos, Q and A, Travel, Whiskey, Whisky