Playboy.com talks to James Beard Award–winning Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. “King Cocktail,” former bartender at New York’s Rainbow Room and president and founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, about slinging old-timey drinks in celebration of, arguably, the greatest day American history ever saw: the day we turned the tide on Prohibition and were allowed by the state to drink our sauce aboveboard again. Gee, thanks, government, swell plan!
December 5, 1933, 80 years ago today, the United States government quit its famous 12-year ban on the sale, production, importation and transportation of all things booze. If you’ve watched any Boardwalk Empire, you’ll know that it had been a long, dry, gangster-ridden decade-and-a-bit.
But was it all bad?
Playboy.com: Was everything about Prohibition a bad idea? What about the Charleston and medicinal whiskey and speakeasies?
DeGroff: It’s such a rich and interesting history. The 21 Club came out of the speakeasy tradition, and by 1929 there were 100,000 of [these types of underground establishments] around the country. But it was a bad time for my profession, sadly; it took us decades to recover from what was essentially a gangster-run business, simply because people associated bars and alcohol in general with gangsters.
Playboy.com: Why did people associate alcohol with crime even after Prohibition was over?
DeGroff: Because a lot of the distributors were, in fact, just gangsters. It hurt the bartending profession in a real way. We’re only just recovering as this cocktail revolution begins to gather steam, not just on our shores but internationally. I’m not saying that it’s made incursions into the major market, but I think the craft-driven cocktail is going to, in the next 10 years, be ubiquitous in the profession itself.
Playboy.com: My dad tells the story of how one of our relatives, I think his name was Perkins Bull, was somehow involved in smuggling booze, traveling from rural Ontario to Chicago in a wagon that read “Bull’s Milk Is Better,” (which sounds kind of lewd, now). But I’m not sure there’s much truth to his story....
DeGroff: I have to tell you, never in our history since the American Revolution were more Americans afoul of the law. It was just, obviously, a bad law and it took 12 years to figure that out and it hurt us in so many ways. Interestingly, we’ve gone beyond even the golden age of the cocktail, now.
Playboy.com: So prior to our current moment in history (the Information Age?), the 1880s were the golden age of the cocktail?
DeGroff: In the 1880s and 1890s there were mixed drinks just everywhere and they were created with interesting ingredients. There was a tremendous surge of creativity at that time and I think we’re seeing that again now. We’re seeing a return to whiskey, a return to gin.
Playboy.com: I was never very far away from whiskey, myself. But it’s great that other people are catching on. Are you making any whiskey-based Repeal Day drinks today?
DeGroff: I’m doing a temperance recipe from the early 19th century called General Harrison’s Nog. General Harrison was a teetotaler and he made a holiday eggnog with cider instead of cream or milk. And it was simple: it was sugar, egg and apple cider. You know, real apple cider, not the sparkling kind, but actually sweet, pressed cider. And I thought, “Oh my god, this cries out for whiskey!”
Playboy.com: I had a glass of store-bought eggnog last night and it cried out for whiskey. But yours sounds better. How do you fix it?
DeGroff: I’m doing this with whiskey and my bitters. It’s simple. You put sugar, an egg, a shot of bourbon or rye. And then you put in about four ounces of whiskey and a dash of bitters and you shake it very hard and you make it by the glass.
Playboy.com: Yes, please.
What better way to celebrate Repeal Day than with a drink? Here's a sample of Dale DeGroff’s Repeal Day concoctions.
•1.3 oz. George Dickel Rye
•0.75 oz. mixture of equal parts egg white and, sugar and syrup
•1 dash DeGroff’s Pimento Bitters
•2 oz. apple cider
PREPARATION: Build in a glass or mug and dust the top with nutmeg.
•1.25 oz. George Dickel No. 1
•1 dash DeGroff’s Pimento Bitters
•0.25 oz. Dale’s Cherry Liqueur
•0.5 oz. simple syrup
•2 orange slices