People

All fired up about whisky

Dale DeGroff's new book is the bridge between the tradi tional world of whisky and the trendy High Street cocktail bar. Dominic Roskrow explains why
By Dominic Roskrow
When international drinks celebrity and writer Dale DeGroff started championing whisky as an ingredient in cocktails late last year, his intercession was as welcome as it was fitting.He is known as the king of cocktails, he has dedicated his life to making great drinks, and he recently published what must surely be the definitive guide to mixing drinks, The Craft of the Cocktail.So when he tells the London Times that whisky will be the most important drink in 2004 and openly encourages young and up and coming barmen to learn more not just about blends and bourbons but also Scottish single malts, then you can bet your bottom dollar that there are plenty of people prepared to sit up and take notice.But it’s not because DeGroff’s comments are so important; it’s the fact that while High Street bars come and go and whisky as a fashion accessory shouldn’t be taken too seriously, DeGroff is an important link between the classical world of drinks and the modern one.For his way isn’t that of drowning spirits in fruit juice as if they were just a do-it-yourself alcopop concoction. No; his is that of the sophisticate. He believes in celebrating the spirit and in showing it off, and of using the finest products to produce the very best drinks.He may – to coin a phrase – mix in the world of fashion bars, but he’s seeking out the people in for the long haul. In effect, he’s the missing link between the producers of fine whisky, and the people who we need to drink it in the future.DeGroff is based in New York and it’s there that he made his name in the world of drinks, most notably at great bars such as the original Charley O’s, the Hotel Bel-Air, and the famous Rainbow Room, where he was given the opportunity to open a classic bar in the old style.What this meant in practice was journey into the past, to the years when Hollywood stars, silky crooners and leading politicians and businessmen drank Sours and Manhattans, and recreating their drinks using the best ingredients available. DeGroff’s world, therefore, is not built around superficial fads and bland teeny drinks, but that of Jerry Thomas and his Bartender’s Guide of 1862. What excites him most – and his enthusiasm all but drips from every pore – is that the future of High Street bars lies in this very past.He recently toured the United Kingdom promoting his book to bartenders, and was stunned by the interest there was. It reinforced the view that many barmen are bored with vodka and are ready for a new challenge, one that whisky offers.“I was pleasantly surprised at what is going on,” he says. “Whisky is clearly the spirit that is stimulating people and it’s not just the easy ones to work with.“There is a growing attempt to rise to the challenge posed by single malts, and there have been some excellent cocktails that have combined the demanding tastes of single malts with other flavours. It is a trend that is set to continue.”DeGroff, who is a consultant for the Match Bar Group in London and who has written for a huge range of magazines and newspapers, will readily admit that he is intrigued by the challenge posed by single malt whisky. But he sees a logical partnership developing between the
younger bourbon-driven bars and the Scotch-dominated traditional hotel bars that still flourish across Europe.“It’s all a question on both sides of education,” he says. “But there’s no reason why different whisky types shouldn’t sit comfortably side by side and if whisky’s the winner in the long run. That has to be a good thing.”DeGroff’s book is aimed primarily at barmen but contains more than 500 cocktail recipes that can be rustled up with a reasonable degree of effort in any kitchen.And he hopes that just as he believes the modern drinker will experiment with single malt, single malt drinkers will be open-minded about cocktails.“After all,” he says, “there are enough drinks out there to choose from. The world of the true cocktail is a warm and welcoming one, a social one.“And one set to attract all sorts of drinkers in to the future.”