An Insider's Guide to Why You Drink What You Drink at the Bar

By Heidi Patalano on June 7, 2013 6:59am 

MIDTOWN — Ever wondered why you ordered a Cosmo in 2010, an absinthe cocktail in 2011, a malt whiskey in 2012, and are rocking up to the bar for a Moscow Mule this year?

Drinking trends are as manufactured as fashion week’s must-haves. It’s the bartenders and writers, publicists and editors of the world who are creating them.

Dale DeGroff, also known as King Cocktail, is one of those trendmakers. A new documentary entitled “Hey Bartender” celebrates the recent cocktail revolution, illuminating how DeGroff and others have elevated “mixology” to an art form and shaped how — and what — we drink today.

In the film, director Douglas Tirola studies innovators like the Clover Club's Julie Reiner and Employees Only's Dushan Zaric, along with the men and women on the ground who bring passion and professionalism to their pours every day.

The film hits theaters Friday, June 7.

“We used to have a joke, chef friends of mine and I, because I was in the position of having a lot of press contact about the latest trends,” DeGroff explains. “The joke among all of us was, ‘Well what are you using?’ ‘I’m using a lot of pomegranate.’

"‘Pomegranate, that’s the newest trend. We just created a trend,’" he added. "So they write about it, another writer writes about it, another writes about it. Suddenly, it’s a trend. Suddenly, we have POM Wonderful.”

As the head bartender at the Rainbow Room in the 1980s, DeGroff pioneered the concept of gourmet cocktails by applying recipes of the 1800s to fresh, high-quality ingredients. As a James Beard award winner, the author of two cocktail recipe books and a partner in the bar training program Beverage Alcohol Resource, he’s a powerful man in the industry.

He tells DNAinfo New York that what you’re drinking now is often dependent on the person who’s pouring it for you.

“My job at the Rainbow Room was actually to buck the styles. We took drinks from another era and made them current again,” he explained. “I could pretty much sell anything I wanted to sell. My feeling is, when a bartender says to me, ‘This product or this drink doesn’t move’ you know what my answer is? 'You’re the mover. You’re the guy.' I think I can sell anything if it’s good and I believe it.”

Jim Meehan, mixologist and proprietor of PDT in the East Village, and who also appears in “Hey Bartender,” seconds the notion that drink trends can be arbitrary.

“I don’t mean to call anyone out, but I think one of the parts of history that has never been told has been how many classic cocktails or trends have been created by marketing people and publicists and writers and how the bartenders were just there for the fine print,” he said. “What I’ve found working in the media is that when a writer or an editor can’t find a new trend, they create a trend, call their friends and sort of make it happen.”

That's not to say that a wide interest in cocktails is itself a random development. DeGroff credits the modern eater's fascination with flavor as paving the way for newfound enthusiasm for the carefully crafted cocktail.

"I think the culinary explosion that happened over the last 30 years has set the table for us on the beverage side in the sense that they’ve created our audience," he said.

"Our audience is now in love with big flavor. They’re ready to try any goddamn thing ... You just have to be clever enough to follow that lead, that template. Give them that kind of experience at the bar that they’re getting in the dining room — with the drinks, with the garnish, with the flavors, with the spritzes with all the little things we can do to make it interesting and unusual and flavorful and an experience at the same time."

That being said, Meehan speculated that some backlash to the artisan cocktail is due to arrive soon.

“The trend thing is a bit of a pendulum. The pendulum has swung towards the very formal, rigorous mixology with shirt, vest and tie and all these rules and now people have decided that these rules are constraining and this reservation system is constraining and these drinks and the people who make them take themselves too seriously so we should do shots and we should just drink PBR,” he said.

But there are some flavors that just don’t jibe with a modern audience no matter what may come and go. When asked about old-timey liquors that don’t appeal to today’s popular palate, DeGroff explained how he would pitch an almond-flavored liqueur to someone sidling up to his bar today.

“You know, when I was a child at Christmas time, we went from one family house to the other after we opened our presents in the morning,” DeGroff began, leaning in with a conspiratorial whisper. “It was such a beautiful tradition — my grandfather, my mother, my grandmother, my sisters — at every house you went to, Italians would give you this little demitasse. They’d take a little anisette and pour it into that demitasse, and it was the sweetest, most wonderful beverage you’d ever tasted. You’ll love it.”

"Hey Bartender" hits select theaters Friday, June 7, 2013.

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