What It’s Like to Be Son of the World’s Most Famous Bartender
Few names carry more weight in the cocktail world than Degroff. Dale Degroff, who singlehandedly revived many classic cocktails (including the Whiskey Smash and the Bijou) at the Rainbow Room and mentored leagues of top bartenders to be, earned his title as King Cocktail and forever cemented his place in cocktail history—but the royal lineage doesn’t end there. His son Leo Degroff, aka Prince Cocktail, is well on his way to matching his father’s bartending prestige.
Degroff the younger began helping his dad at events at an early age, and quickly adopted not only his father’s bartending techniques, but also his work ethic and nomadic habits. Like his father, he has always had his hands in many pies, consulting on projects across the country and working high profile events like Tales of the Cocktail, The James Beard Awards, and at his father’s BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource) bartending program. These days, he primarily works at Liquid Productions with longtime friend Andy Seymour (the two first worked together with papa DeGroff at Oprah’s 50th birthday party).
Here, Leo recalls those early days working with his father and working his way from beneath the shadow of the king.
Supercall: When did you first start working with your dad?
Leo Degroff: I remember doing events with him when I was maybe even 13 or 14—just simple stuff like carrying glassware. Later on I did my cousin’s wedding and things like that. All pretty basic stuff. I ended up in the kitchen, working as a line cook at chain steakhouses. Eventually, I went to a restaurant in Beacon, run by chef Waldy Malouf, who’s now at CIA [Culinary Institute of America] now. I was a prep cook there for about a year. Then did some college from there. And then I ended up on some barges and fishing boats, and I was driving cars—but I don’t know if it was a legal job, to be honest.
SC: With all that restaurant work, were you rebelling against the bar industry the way a lot of kids rebel against their parents’ work?
LD: No. I mean, nobody tries to get their kid to grow up to be a bartender. But I think if you drop out of enough schools and bullshit enough, you don’t really have a choice at some point.
SC: What was it like to go to the Rainbow Room as a kid?
LD: At the time we lived in a pretty small shithole in the middle of nowhere, Brooklyn. You couldn’t really hang out at night in the street because there was all sorts of gang violence. But when we would go over to his job—which is at the top of Rockefeller Center—everything was pristine. He knew every single person’s name, from the guy who swept the lobby, to the Japanese guy who owned the building. It was pretty amazing and overwhelming. At the time they had the big back room, and eight dudes working in the bathroom. The whole place was like the Wizard of Oz.
SC: Do you have a favorite memory from that time?
LD: I didn’t have a legal drink there until much later, when the Ciprianis had it, maybe in my 20s. But I do remember from earlier that big revolving dance floor and the chandelier. I remember seeing that room packed out a couple times. The actual Rainbow Room Rainbow Room. That was pretty cool. And the way the bar was set up, [you could see] the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers behind it. That was also very cool. The Ciprianis eventually ripped out that bar and put it on the other side of the room.
SC: Fast forward to your own bartending career. How did you establish yourself in the industry? Were you worried at all about getting out from under your father’s shadow?
LD: I didn’t really care. It just meant I had to do the shittier jobs longer. I barbacked for way longer than a lot of my peers. You end up doing the grunt work for years longer just to prove that you can do it better than everybody else. I was fine with all of it. I started in nightclubs. The first was a place called Taj. I still know the owner, Lesley Bernard, who was partners with some guy named Greek George or whatever. That place is still there. It was a hot night club. There were celebrities in there. Elad [Zvi, now of Broken Shaker in Miami] was a bartender there. And Adam Delgudice—I think he’s at Regent Cocktail Room down in Miami too—and I were barbacks there. This was like ‘99 or 2000; I don’t think I was even 21 to be honest. Then I went to BED NY. Willy Shine and Aisha Sharpe were doing that program. They’re both on the brand side now—Willy’s now the national brand rep for Jägermeister, and Aisha works for VDKA 6100 vodka, which is [partly] owned by Robert De Niro. Once we built up a scene, we opened a rooftop bar, which is a different style but a lot of fun. I made more money then, when I was 22, than I make now. Those were good years.
SC: So were you using skills you had learned from your dad? Or were you departing from that classic cocktail knowledge with different styles?
LD: The advantage I had was I got to pick up a little something from everybody. We would do events with everyone, in other cities, different countries. I met Angus Winchester, for example. Before he was travelling around working for booze companies, he was a GM at a little tiki bar down on Portobello Road in London. I remember going there. Dad was launching a U.K. version of Craft of the Cocktail. They just threw me to work. They asked, “What are you doing for the next week?” I said, “I don’t know.” I was 18, so I could drink there. They said, “Well, come work at the bar.” I didn’t really know how to make a lot of drinks because you can’t even drink at that age in the States and I didn’t have a lot of experience at the time. It was kind of tough to get thrown behind a bar with them. They expected me to know how to make these drinks. I’m like, “Hey guys. This is my first legal drink right here. I’m not sure how much help I’ll be. I can do all the barback stuff no problem, but…”
SC: So a trial by fire, then.
SC: What’s your dad’s favorite drink that you’ve made?
LD: I made up a silly drink called the Leo De Janeiro, which involves eight dashes of Angostura bitters. It’s basically gin, juice, Angostura bitters. The juice is usually pineapple. We would order them when we were working in Fort Lauderdale at a bar because all the bars there made bullshit drinks. We would see the Angostura on the back bar, and you couldn’t really fuck the drink up. So we’d just say, “Give me a gin and juice, and throw a heap of Angostura bitters in there.” And they’d say, “Are you sure?” He always liked that drink. Obviously I make a more sophisticated version these days with a little bit of acid and a bit of sweetener, and probably Plymouth gin or whatever.
SC: And what do you like him to make for you?
LD: I always like his Cosmo best. I have followed his recipe down to the milliliter, but for some reason, it always tastes better when he makes it. Even people that make his version make it off a little. They think, “Oh, well, that recipe can’t be right.” Everybody thinks they know better. But his version was always tastier. That’s why Toby Cecchini and everybody else didn’t get as much credit for their versions. Dad’s was the favorite, and he was making more of them for more people. He wasn’t the inventor of it but he was known for it.
SC: Which of your accomplishments so far do you think your dad is most proud of?
LD: Turning a job I made up into a career. I’m a highschool dropout, a college dropout. I’ve dropped out of everything you can drop out of. Now here I am at 35-years-old with health insurance.