I confess I didn’t know who Dale DeGroff is. I was probably the only person at Tales of the Cocktail who didn’t recognize his name. Turns out he’s a legendary bartender — the best in the world according to some. I didn’t know that when I came into the seminar he was moderating, but by the end I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
Let me back up. I popped my head into the ballroom at the Royal Sonesta a little early, as they were pouring the samples we were about to enjoy, and caught a whiff.
Imagine if you will a large room full of glasses full of fine French brandy. It’s as if the entire room has been transformed into a giant snifter. The scent alone is intoxicating.
OK. So then when the seminar begins, Dale introduces himself quite modestly as “a bartender who got lucky.” He thanked everyone who was participating in the seminar by name, including the cocktail staff. It was a very brief thing, but in all the seminars I attended it was unique, and I immediately liked the guy for it.
The session was sparsely attended, but nevertheless I heard one person remark that he was impressed by the turnout. That’s Armagnac in a nutshell. In most of the world, it is an afterthought or a footnote appended to the dominance of Cognac. But, as this seminar argued convincingly, it’s actually the most popular brandy in France, and it’s also the first French brandy, with the first recorded mention dating back as far as 1711.
Doug Frost and Alain Royer were on hand to help us understand the unique qualities of this spirit, with great passion and intelligence, but it was Philippe Gironi’s presence that really made this into a standout session.
Philippe speaks very little English. He spoke to us exclusively through Alain’s translations. And frankly much of the discussion was over my head, but still it was fascinating to hear. Philippe was all set to become a cop until he got dragged somehow into the family business. He’s a roving distiller. He drags his stills all over the Armagnac region to various vineyards transforming wine into brandy. Much of the session turned on the finer points of the process, and I just don’t know enough about distillation basics to appreciate that, but from what I gathered the stills Philippe uses are rather unique, combining aspects of both pot and columns stills.
Of course, we tasted while we talked, starting with a 2008 Armagnac and progressing to a barrel sample from 2006, Réserve Spéciale Darroze Bas-Armagnac, Hors d’Age Château du Busca, culminating in a 1985 vintage Château du Busca. Each was better than the last, and the last was heavenly.
But since we are at Tales of the Cocktail, we must give due consideration to mixed drinks. The session started with a d’Artagnan, which I believe is considered de rigueur for an occasion such as this. We ended with a little something invented for the occasion by Dale DeGroff, which he had not yet even bothered to name.
I took one taste of this thing, and that’s when I realized Dale was a giant. It was made with orange curaçao, white Armagnac, ruby port and pineapple (juice?). I’m not exaggerating when I say this was perhaps the most interesting of the hundred or so cocktails I sampled over the course of this year’s event.