'King Cocktail' Serves Up Prohibition History, Hangover Cure

Dec 5, 2013
Originally published on December 5, 2013 2:18 pm

If you're going to a holiday party, there's a good chance you'll be sipping on an adult beverage of some sort. You can do that without looking over your shoulder for authorities because exactly 80 years ago today, Dec. 5, Prohibition came to an end and Americans were able to legally pick up their drinks again.

Dale DeGroff, aka King Cocktail, and the president and a founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, says the Prohibition era left its mark on American life. He joins Tell Me More host Michel Martin to talk about that, and about current trends in cocktails.


Interview Highlights

On the idea that organized crime took off during Prohibition

I'm afraid that it's spot on. Really, basically, alcohol transportation, importation if you want to call it that, bootlegging was all controlled by organized crime. We actually did not even have organized crime in that official and very exact way prior to Prohibition. It really developed during Prohibition. So none of the benefits that we expected to accrue — none of that came to pass, unfortunately.

On the long-lasting effects of Prohibition

There are still so many states that have dry counties. There's something called DISCUS: Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And it's kind of the lobby group for the beverage industry — alcohol beverage industry I should say. And they still, state by state, go after this byzantine group of what they called "blue laws" right after Prohibition, which are unique to each state and even county. Some of them were really silly. There were certain bars where only small 50 milliliter bottles were allowed to be used. There were other bars where alcoholic beverage bottles were not allowed to be on view, [laughs] just crazy stuff. And one by one, they're defeating these and overturning them. But yeah, even my profession — the profession of bartending — was badly damaged by Prohibition.

On Prohibition-era doctors who wrote alcohol prescriptions for malaise, depression, nerves, etc.

There were distilleries that were allowed to produce alcohol for medicinal purposes only, and that was a tongue-in-cheek goofy kind of a joke. Because a lot of the legal bootlegging took place right out of pharmacies. [Laugh]. ... I have copies of the old prescriptions doctors would write.

On the most exciting thing in cocktails today

I think it's the culinary bent that the profession has taken. Bartenders have adopted not only the ingredients from the culinary side — a lot more savory, herbal, unusual vegetables, fruit, spices — they've also adopted a lot of the techniques, a lot of the tools. When I hired 36 bartenders in 1986 at the Rainbow Room in New York City that had just been restored to its former glory, not a single bartender arrived with a tool of any sort in his hand — not even a paring knife; and my heart sank. But that's changed, and now bartenders are going to work with kits just like chefs are.

On a surefire cure for hangovers

Don't start or don't stop, because you can't have a hangover as long as you're drinking. ... You know the real only cure is to take a multivitamin and an aspirin just before you go to bed, but who remembers to do that when you come home after a night of drinking?

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we will visit with reggae and dancehall star Gyptian. He'll tell us why he thinks the sound that made him a star in Jamaica will win him fans in the U.S. But first, if you are heading to that concert or just a holiday party, there's a good chance you or someone around you will be sipping an adult beverage of some sort.

And if you are an adult, you can do that without looking over your shoulder for the authorities because exactly 80 years ago today, prohibition came to an end, and Americans were legally able to pick up their drinks again. But some people think that all these years later, prohibition still has a mark on American life. So to talk about that and current trends in cocktails, we hope, we called on the man many people credit with reviving the art of the cocktail, Dale DeGroff. He is president and founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. But he's with us now from New York. Dale DeGroff, the king of the cocktail, welcome to the program.

DALE DEGROFF: Thank you, Michel. I'm really delighted to be here.

MARTIN: Now there are a lot of shows and movies that have talked about the role of organized crime and bootlegging and running moonshine during prohibition. How accurate is all that?

DEGROFF: Well, I'm afraid that it's spot on. Really, basically, alcohol transportation, importation - if you want to call it that - bootlegging was all controlled by organized crime. I mean, we actually did not even have organized crime in that official and very exact way prior to prohibition. It really developed during prohibition. So none of the benefits that we expected it to accrue, none of that came to pass unfortunately.

MARTIN: Are we still feeling the effects of prohibition in some way?

DEGROFF: Oh, yeah. There are so many states that still have dry counties. There's something called DISCUS, which is the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And it's kind of the lobby group for the beverage industry - alcohol beverage industry, I should say. And they still, state-by-state, go after this byzantine group of what they called blue laws right after prohibition, which are unique to each state and even county. Some of them are really silly.

There are certain bars where only small 50 ml bottles were allowed to be used. There were other bars where alcoholic beverage bottles were not allowed to be on view - just crazy stuff. And one by one, they're defeating these and overturning them. But, yeah, even my profession, the professional bartending, was badly damaged by prohibition.

MARTIN: Well, tell us a little bit about it. Like, just give me one example of something that you wouldn't think of as kind of the heir to prohibition, but it's still with us. I mean, I know you talked about the blue laws, but is there something else that comes to mind?

DEGROFF: The craft-driven cocktail bartender of the late 19th century - it was a true profession. It came to a screeching halt. And right into the '60s and '70s, the perception on the part of a lot of folks was bartending or that sort of a job was not a proper career. And that's really unfortunate because alcoholic beverages and all their myriad versions and styles and the history of them and how to properly drink them and understand them, all that is a really exciting and interesting profession and I think...

MARTIN: It's just like being a chef.

DEGROFF: It is, and as a matter of fact, you hit the nail on the head. With the explosion on the culinary side of the business, we have developed an audience of people that are very adventurous and are in love with big flavor. So it's a perfect time for the cocktail to come into that mix.

MARTIN: But just speaking of the history again, I understand that even there are certain expressions, like for medicinal purposes only...

DEGROFF: Yes.

MARTIN: ...That date to prohibition, right?

DEGROFF: Yes, indeed.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about that.

DEGROFF: There were distilleries that were allowed to produce alcohol for medicinal purposes only. And that was a tongue-in-cheek, goofy kind of a joke because some of the - a lot of the legal bootlegging took place right out of pharmacies.

MARTIN: So pharmacies actually really did write prescriptions for booze.

DEGROFF: They did indeed. I have copies of the old prescriptions doctors would write.

MARTIN: What would it say? Like...

DEGROFF: Prescription for...

MARTIN: ...For your...

DEGROFF: No, it's a prescription for alcoholic beverages for an actual amount just written like a regular prescription.

MARTIN: But for what? For what illness?

DEGROFF: You name it. I mean, you know.

MARTIN: Bad parties - boring parties? What was the ailment that the prescription was for?

DEGROFF: Oh, I'm sure - malaise.

MARTIN: Malaise, OK. Nerves, maybe. Is it nerves...

DEGROFF: Nerves. Lots of things, I'm sure.

MARTIN: ...Something like that?

DEGROFF: Down in the dumps, you know, depression.

MARTIN: Really. Oh, well, OK. And I am curious about how you got interested in this field because as I understand it, you started out as an actor.

DEGROFF: I did. I came to town, and it took me about two weeks to figure out that life in this town really happens in the neighborhood bars and in the bar and grill. It's such an exciting and interesting place, and I had ventured into those places. You know, I was 18 years old in those days. I'm 65 now. And you could drink at 18. And I also was also very interested in jazz, and there were - I caught the end of an area.

A little bit of Swing Street was still around, and it was exciting. And I knew some folks in the advertising business who did the advertising for Restaurant Associates - was operated by Joseph Baum, who is actually credited by many, many people as being - changing the way we eat and drink in America, taking us out of the bland '50s into where we are today. It's an extraordinary place where we are on the culinary and the beverage side today.

MARTIN: What is the most exciting thing in cocktails today?

DEGROFF: Well, I think it's the culinary bend that the profession has taken. Bartenders have adopted not only the ingredients from the culinary side - a lot more savory, herbal, unusual vegetables, fruits, spices. They've also adapted a lot of the techniques, a lot of the tools. When I hired 36 bartenders in 1986 at the Rainbow Room in New York City that had just been restored to its former glory, not a single bartender arrived with a tool of any sort in his hand, not even a paring knife. And my heart sank. But that's changed. Now bartenders are going to work with kits just like chefs are. It's really extraordinary to see it.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, this is the season when many people do kind of increase their intake of alcoholic beverages. And I love what I read someplace about your surefire cure for the hangover. You say that there are only two.

DEGROFF: Don't stop, or don't start because you can't have a hangover as long as you're drinking. But, you know, there are such goofy - soak your feet in oatmeal, drink a milkshake while keeping your head upside down. You know, the real only cure is to take a multivitamin and an aspirin just before you go to bed, but who remembers to do that when you come home after a night of drinking?

MARTIN: OK.

DEGROFF: Really.

MARTIN: OK, really. Well, we'll try to remember. Dale DeGroff is president and founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail. He is known as King Cocktail. He is the recipient of a James Beard Award, which is a distinguished award in the food and beverage industry. And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Dale DeGroff, cheers.

DEGROFF: Cheers, Michel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.