A founder of the modern craft cocktail movement and the Museum of the American Cocktail (www.cocktailmuseum.org), Dale DeGroff will attend the April 17 gala opening of the museum inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 504-569-0405; www.southernfood.org). He spoke with Gambit about the exhibit and cocktails.
What will people see in the exhibit?
DeGroff: It's a timeline. It gives you the moment in 1806 when the cocktail was defined officially for the first time as a mixed beverage. [The cocktail] was a novelty. It wasn't available to many folks. Reasonably priced ice hadn't evolved yet. But once Frederic Tudor starting storing ice and shipping it around the world and around the country from New England, wealthier folks started demanding ice with their mixed drinks. In the years 1830 to 1861, mostly for cruise ships and onboard, there was the development of artificial ice machines. They took over the industry by the mid-19th century. With the sudden availability of lots of reasonably priced ice and with other advances — like water saturated with gas and then flavored, and the ability to push beer through lines with gas — all these things evolved: the mechanics of the modern barroom.
The cocktail is a post-Industrial Revolution phenomenon. It couldn't exist in the 16th and 17th centuries. They didn't have the ways and means to make it cheap and easy to do these things. The precursor of the cocktail was the punch bowl — a mixed drink with a lot of the same elements as a cocktail: sweet, sour, bitter, a spice. It was the property of the wealthy. You had to have a big silver punch bowl and a lot of silver punch cups and exotic spices that were expensive and access to citrus fruit, which was hard to get. All of these things — with increased availability in urban areas —seemed to come together in the middle of the 19th century. That journey is what you see on the wall [at the museum]. It's a growing ability to mechanize the bar, the electrification of the bar.
Then there's the downfall that came from temperance. The cocktail was severely affected by Prohibition. By the middle of the 20th century, the fancy cocktails of the golden era of the 1880s were long gone. They were historical oddities. Only now do we find them flourishing again, as part of the culinary revolution of the past 35 years. Our exhibit ends at the new millennium.
There's also a lot of tiki stuff in the exhibit.
D: [Tiki drinks] were wildly popular post-Prohibition. A lot of people were going to Cuba; a lot of rum was coming up through Florida and Louisiana. [America] had a second love affair with rum; people had a taste for it. And also, rum was cheap. Lots of distributors who had been gangsters moved into the legitimate end of the business. They found themselves with large inventories of rum. They started allocating better spirits according to how much rum you bought. That pushed people to create drinks around rum.
How close is New Orleans to the cutting edge of the craft cocktail movement?
D: You just caught up. I travel everywhere. I go to Rochester (New York), Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Minneapolis. Everywhere you go there are craft cocktail bars. The Internet is driving it. New Orleans just caught up to cutting-edge major urban areas like Boston, New York and, believe it or not, Seattle and Portland. Los Angeles' market is pretty amazing right now. New Orleans is right there with those urban areas because of Tales of the Cocktail. A lot of craft cocktail bartenders have relocated here, like Jeff Berry.