New York Cocktail King Launches Le Martini Bar in Melbourne

American bartender Dale DeGroff has arrived in Australia, bringing his king of cocktails swagger to Le Martini, a new 33-seater serving only martinis at a new bar located at Crown Melbourne – a stand-alone Grey Goose initiated idea.

De Groff is the epitome of New York bar cool, and at 75, still gets a buzz working in the industry – shaking and stirring it like no other with many tales to share. He’s a trove of cocktail knowledge and pow-wow; riffing on anecdotes that take us from 1970’s New York to present day.

He wrote the iconic cocktail bartender’s guide in 2002 The Craft of the Cocktail, and updated it in 2022 – putting his preferred liqueur brands alongside the recipes which wasn’t the focus the first time around.

“You can pinpoint gin styles you want or whiskey flavours you want when it comes to cocktails. I have never lived in a time like this in all the years I have been in the industry, but now there’s literally more than 200 vermouths to choose to make a Manhattan,” says DeGroff.

He worked at the Rainbow Room in the 1980s and beyond, serving Madonna and her entourage a new breed of Cosmopolitan that spurred his office phone to ring off the hook the day after – with media round the globe, including Australia, wanting to know what drink Madonna was holding in her hand at the time.

Imagine this – a Grammy’s after party in 1988 at the Rainbow Room – situated high atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza; the who’s who of celebrity in attendance – all wanting a roped off tier to themselves. Those who got their own tiered zone included legends such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and of course Madonna – while De Groff was in charge of her bar supplies.

“The Grammys after party took over both floors, but in the Rainbow Room itself, the three tiers that go up from the dance floor from the left, centre and right side, were taken over by the who’s who of the time,” he says.

“Madonna requested the cosmopolitan cocktail. It wasn’t my invention, but because the bar was so high profile, when the photograph of her appeared in the paper the next day, New York Magazine claimed I had invented it and I didn’t invent it – but I think I made a better version of it,” says De Groff.

“The original drink wasn’t great – a glorified lemon drop. They used rose lime juice and artificial sour mix. We put Cointreau, which is stronger than Triple Sec, and used real lime juice, he adds.

What’s more, by the time Sex and the City was being filmed in New York from 1998, De Groff was hired by the producers to make their yearly Christmas cocktails, including his version of the Cosmo.  And of course, one of the show’s iconic lines ever is “It’s not officially a date without cocktails.”

While everybody wants to know about the past, DeGroff says we’re living in the most extraordinary time when it comes to cocktails.

“The job of the bartender has been more than rehabilitated,” he quips. “There are luxury properties all around the world who want educated bartenders who understand their culture to help them open their venues. The command for them is huge,” he says.

The chance to come back to Australia to work with Grey Goose and create Le Martini is a unique and unusual proposition for DeGroff.  “I was delighted to be tapped for the key opening menu of three drinks that span the history of the martini,” he says. “But it’s an unusual move to only serve the martini. It is iconic,” he adds.

“I do a variation of the 1888 Harry Johnson which was the first recipe in print, and a five-ingredient version by the way, and equal parts gin and vermouth. I wanted to pay tribute to that and use vodka and vermouth in this case,” says DeGroff.

When he’s not making cocktails and looking for a drink on the town himself, what DeGroff orders depends on his interaction with the bartender.

“When your customer walks in the door, you need to make contact in the first 30 seconds. and you have to be a listener,” he told the ABC Radio’s David Astle’s last week.

“I observe the bartender, what I see him do means I’m either sticking to beer or ordering a cocktail,” says DeGroff.

Le Martini opens late May at Crown, and will feature DeGroff’s recipes.  Stay updated here:  www.instagram.com/lemartinibar/

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