Portland Cocktail Week is returning for the third time, with the usual bevy of demonstrations, discussions, and seminars by bartenders and brand reps from all over the place, that kicks off this weekend with the 8th Annual Great American Distillers Festival. For me anyway, the undisputable must-see event of cocktail week will be a highly entertaining presentation by King Cocktail himself, Dale DeGroff. For those unfamiliar with legendary figures from behind the bar, DeGroff is the author of crucial tomes The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail, and the man most often credited with spearheading the revival of classic cocktail recipes, and combining them with fresh and local ingredients, which he pioneered during his tenure as a bartender in the 1980s at deservedly famous New York joints like The Rainbow Room and Windows on the World. But besides being a skilled maker of drinks, DeGroff is a scholar, a troubadour, and a librarian—a living link to timeless drinking establishments from both coasts and every one-horse town in between.
His early ambitions toward a career on the stage serve him well in his one-man show (plus guitarist) called “On The Town”, a breezy and informative revue that salutes saloons, dive bars, and speakeasies, complete with songs and drinks from bygone eras, and stories that may or may not be factual. “I’d never ruin a good story with the truth,” he says by phone.
DeGroff tells me that his show provides an informal foundation of information that dates back to the 19th century, and the advent of the first proper cocktail, that continues through the Roaring 20s, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II and up to the 1980s when he himself began to play a part in the evolution of mixology. “I saw the end of the old and was part of the new, the return of classic construction,” he explains. “I wanted to tell that story, but I also wanted to give some foundation… about how alcoholic beverages have grown hand-in-hand with civilization.”
Trying to keep pace while DeGroff expounds and extrapolates is practically impossible, especially if you’re taking notes with a cell phone tucked under your jaw. He references tunes from the Great American Songbook that are part of his repertoire (Fats Waller’s “Lulu’s Back in Town” is one), his signature line of pimento bitters (“Pimento is an all-spice berry, that exhibits characteristics of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. It’s very friendly with rum, it’s very friendly with whiskey”), archaic drinks (Colonial Punch, Absinthe Frappé, the Major Bailey, among others), the evolving role of the bartender, and his late mentor, Joe Baum, the famed restaurateur responsible for game-changing eateries like The Four Seasons and La Fonda del Sol. But even with his rapid-fire delivery, the theme of “community” resurfaces again and again.
“What the show is really about, is the communities that grow up around these drinking establishments, and have been doing so since the days of Pompeii," DeGroff says. "These places are centers of community and centers of life—think about it. Our births, our weddings, our deaths, all these things are celebrated in these gathering places—accompanied by alcoholic beverages.”
Building better communities through booze and banter? I’ll drink to that. See the show.