The New Millennium
B. E. Rock and B. E. Windows were the two companies I worked for from 1985 through 2001. They operated two renowned restaurants that were also the two highest restaurants in the world at the time: the Rainbow Room at the top of 30 Rock and Windows on the World on top of the World Trade Center. In 1999, we lost the Rainbow Room in an unsuccessful negotiation with Jerry Speyer of Tishman Speyer. Two years later, in 2001, we lost Windows on the World in a catastrophe that changed the United States more than any single event since the Civil War.
Timing is everything. When the first edition of The Craft of the Cocktail
was released in 2002, the timing was so right and so wrong. The 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and in the sky over Pennsylvania hit like a thunderbolt, turning our world upside down overnight. Life as we knew it ceased: professions were put on hold, entire sectors of the economy were frozen, no one was sure what the future would bring. It was a time of trauma and stark fear. The sudden downturn had a huge impact on the hospitality and entertainment industry. For me, it marked the end of a sixteen-year episode. For America, it was the beginning of an era with an uncertain future.
With the approach of the new millennium came the promise of a cocktail resurgence. I assured young career bartenders and anyone in the press who would listen, that the recognition and notoriety of the star chefs of the 1990s would be enjoyed by new bartenders of the early aughts. Mixologists broke new ground and worked the craft with creativity, achieving successes not seen since the late nineteenth century. This would be the era of the star bartender—complete with the rewards and the pitfalls that the movers and shakers of the culinary revolution had already experienced.
On the evening of September 10, 2001, I was at Windows on the World hosting a session in a series we called Spirits in the Skybox, presented in the Skybox, a member’s lounge that overlooked the main bar. My session included a hands-on class in tequila cocktails and a tasting of different expressions. At the end of the session we all felt a bit buzzed and needed some food. I had friends who had attended the class, and I asked the evening manager whether he had a table in the main bar large enough for the party to grow if needed. I was supplying the fuel, Veuve Clicquot Champagne, our Windows on the World special cuvée, to keep things light and airy. We dined and then danced to the music put on by a wonderful woman DJ and stayed ’til closing. The check I signed that night, along with thousands of papers and documents, would be swept away by the prevailing westerly winds and scattered from New York Harbor to neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The Baum Family was contacted by residents of Brooklyn who recovered papers from Joe Baum’s archives in their backyards.
Our losses at Windows that day were heavy. We had booked a large breakfast event with two hundred guests. When the plane struck the North Tower, only a few of the client organizers were present, but a full complement of service staff—seventy-three Windows staff members—were setting up for the breakfast. Above the point of impact, they were unable to escape the building. The lives lost at Windows on the World that sunny Tuesday morning were among the 2,753 lives lost in the Twin Towers. It will take generations to recover from the loss.
After nineteen months of trauma, New Yorkers were still reeling but determined to find a path back to some sense of normalcy. As we began shifting into recovery mode, the fall season of 2003 exploded across the city: the bars and restaurants were back in business and then some. We were damned if terrorists were going to change our lifestyle, and we celebrated the holidays with a vengeance. With my book The Craft of the Cocktaill
as my passport, I went on the road, doing events around the country and in the United Kingdom, even taking a consulting job as the cocktail director for a small but influential London-based company called the Match Bar Group.
The cocktail bar business went into overdrive, its reawakening fueled by chat rooms that attracted aficionados from around the world, hungry for information about craft cocktails. London, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Sidney all had small communities of influential bartenders and bar owners involved daily in conversations. One chat room called DrinkBoy.com was the experiment of a project supervisor at Microsoft named Robert Hess, whose avocation was fine cocktails. He facilitated conversations with bartenders around the world, who shared recipes, techniques, products, and other resources. Debates over history and lore erupted in message-board threads that lasted for days at a time. Gurus of this online world emerged, including Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh, whose influential 2004 book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails
inspired spirits producers to revisit the spirits and bitters products lost during Prohibition.
It was the beginning of a bull market for spirits, with companies large and small releasing premium and ultrapremium whiskey/y brands, tequila brands, and vodka brands. Grey Goose, an ultra-premium vodka brand on the market for a mere seven years, was purchased from Sidney Frank Importing Co. by Bacardi Limited for more than 2 billion dollars! Bitters, the defining ingredient of the cocktail category, were in the dead-letter box after Prohibition. But during the craft cocktail movement, they came roaring back, with more than a hundred brands producing several hundred flavors.
The cocktail community found an historical oracle in Dr. David Wondrich. A former college professor turned drinks writer for Esquire
magazine, Wondrich wrote two books before publishing his seminal volume, Imbibe!
, in 2007, a tour de force of drinks history, where real historical facts are typically as rare as dinosaur tracks. In 2010, Wondrich authored Punch , another volume of drinks history that changed the bar business. Punch
was a deep dive into the birth of the spirit-based punch tradition that fueled high-society imbibing for 250 years, eventually becoming the blueprint for the cocktail itself. Craft bartenders around the world began serving classic shrub-based punches from the eighteenth century.
Meanwhile, The Craft of the Cocktail
, my how-to book, was racking up printing after printing as bright young people leaving their business and professional studies to become bartenders began using it as their textbook. There must have been parents all over America gunning for this guy Dale DeGroff, whose book turned their son or daughter away from a real
career for what—bartending!
Yes, indeed, it was starting to look as if there might be something to the notion that bartending could be a real profession again. Corporations that operated luxury hotel and restaurant brands realized that they needed beverage specialists with a broad knowledge of cocktails, spirits, wines, beers, teas, and coffees across cultures from the West to the East. The earnings ceiling for bartenders with these special skills was raised, and “the beverage specialist” became an emerging profession.
Large drinks companies that bet heavily on the rebirth of the cocktail and won big wanted to ensure that it was more than a flash in the pan. They put their dollars into the trade and invested in programs and events like Seagram’s School of Spirits and Cocktails, Tales of the Cocktail, BarSmarts, World Class, and Bacardi Legacy. They dedicated themselves to the proposition that an educated consumer would reap huge returns in sales, and they invested in advertorials, researched and written by leading drinks writers like F. Paul Pacult, Dave Broom, and many others. They brought the consumer into the distilleries of Kentucky and the peat bogs and the barley malting floors of Scotland. I propose that the investment paid—and continues to pay—substantial dividends.
The drinks companies are not the only winners. Libbey glass and many smaller china and glass suppliers have prospered. The growth in just one glass category—the cocktail glass in all its iterations—from 1990 to 2018, is vast.
Today, the cocktail seems to be everywhere, but most importantly, it is back in its rightful place in the thick of American cultural and culinary life. It is hard to thrill at the heights that the new millennium is taking the craft cocktail without looking back at how this unique American culinary art evolved for over two hundred years, a craft that we almost lost in the early days of the twentieth century with the “big mistake”—Prohibition.
Copyright © 2020 by Dale DeGroff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.