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Dale DeGroff Does Bitters (Golden State of Cocktails 2015).

By: Maren Swanson • February 27th, 2015
Dale DeGroff Talks Bitters at this Year's Golden State of Cocktails in Los Angeles.

At this year's Golden State of Cocktails, I attended the seminar, Dale DeGroff Does Bitters, led by founding president of the Museum of the American Cocktail, Dale DeGroff. You may have heard this name before in the cocktail community, especially in New York City, where DeGroff developed his mixology techniques as head bartender at the famous Rainbow Room. He has been featured in the recent mixology documentary, Hey Bartender, and he also received the James Beard Award for Wine and Spirits and author of The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail. Whoa, quite a resume. This man knows his booze and so much so, in fact, that he started his own line of aromatic bitters.

Dale DeGroff Talks Bitters at this Year's Golden State of Cocktails in Los Angeles.

    For his 2 hour class, DeGroff gave a historic overview of aromatic bitters that included the history and origin of many key botanicals and spices used to make bitters. It's quite the process and we learned some unique historic facts, including the use of crimson-colored cochineal beetles to dye certain alcohol products back in the day. He also suggested one his current favorite reads, The Drunken Botanist, as a helpful historic guide to botany and its tie to alcohol and cocktails (which I'm listening to right now on Audible).

    DeGroff encouraged us to taste 5 prepared Manhattan cocktails on their own and next with the addition of different types of bitters to help us discern how the bitters do, in fact, change the flavor profiles of the Manhattans. And aroma, of course, it very important too. Smell before you taste. Many Americans may have an aversion to bitter flavors, hence growing up with soda pop and sweets. Italians do it right, he says, serving the bitter apertivos with soda, and/or over ice, because the worst sip is the first sip and the best sip is the last sip.

Dale DeGroff Talks Bitters at this Year's Golden State of Cocktails in Los Angeles.

Although bitters was quite popular in the 19th century, it took a bit of a back seat at many bars when DeGroff was slinging drinks in New York City. A common joke back in his days of bartending went, "What's going to last longer, my marriage or my bottle of Angostura bitters?" Angostura and Peychaud's bitters (the post Civil War "cure-alls") remain extremely relevant in today's cocktail culture but you will also start to notice an emerging market of new bitters products, including his own. He also kids, "You might think twice about a product you're gonna sell in drops. What was I thinking?" That remark got a huge laugh. Obviously it's his passion though, and his bitters taste quite great.

"Bitters is a balancing agent," says DeGroff. Balance is one of the hardest things to get right, so if you can get close enough, in my opinion, you're already winning.

If you weren't able to make it to this year's Golden State of Cocktail to hear the master mixologist speak, then stick around to watch my 3-part video collection of his seminar:

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