A decade ago, when Dale DeGroff and his co-founders behind the Museum of the American Cocktail presented their idea to create a showcase for this most American libation, not everyone was ready to toast its success.
“There were skeptics, probably the same type of people who thought Prohibition was a good idea,” recalled DeGroff, the renowned bartender and cocktail impresario known as “King Cocktail.” “They were the people snickering about it, asking what you’d do in a cocktail museum besides drink.”
It turns out those doubters were at least partially right. The pleasure of cocktails, not just research and artifacts related to them, has been integral to the museum, where events and exhibits have sometimes been both hands-on and bottoms up. But that’s hardly where things ended.
Since its start in 2005, the museum has been about history, culture and professionalism in the cocktail world, and as craft cocktails go mainstream this is no longer a niche pursuit.
This week, the Museum of the American Cocktail officially reopens its New Orleans collection in a new home after a long hiatus (see sidebar for details) and launches a new series of local events, called Touring the Cocktail, that are focused as much on the current pulse and future direction as the past.
“Initially, the idea was to sow seeds for rediscovering this cocktail culture. Those seeds have been planted, it’s happening, so now we’re able to do so much more,” said Philip Dobard, vice president of the SoFAB Institute, the parent organization for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
A museum on the move
Like the go-cup version of a museum, the cocktail collection had an itinerant start. It first took shape as a display inside the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, later moved to Las Vegas for a home in a Commander’s Palace restaurant then operated in that city and eventually evolved into a museum-within-a-museum concept back in New Orleans as part of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum.
Once a separate entity, it has since been incorporated as part of the SoFAB Institute, and it now functions as a collection and exhibit inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum’s new home in Central City.
Liz Williams, executive director of the SoFAB Institute, said with cocktails increasingly viewed in culinary terms the collection is a natural fit. Some of the pieces will be worked into the museum’s exhibits on the larger food culture of the South. But the main cocktail display now takes the shape of a timeline arrayed across one wall of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum.
Designed to look like a long bar, this timeline includes vintage marketing materials, antiquated bottles, bar implements and tools of the trade, tracing a progression from the cocktail’s austere roots to the Art Deco contours of the martini craze to the resplendent flair of the tiki genre.
Details abound, from a cache of kitschy bar napkins to a bottle opener from 1933 (the year Prohibition was repealed) shaped like a hatchet in mocking tribute to Carrie Nation, the temperance zealot famous for smashing up bars in protest.
The museum’s permanent exhibit on absinthe, La Galerie d’Absinthe, is slated to open Feb. 28.
Learning with libations
Beyond the artifacts, the return of the Museum of the American Cocktail signals the start of more cocktail-focused events and programs too.
Though the Southern Food & Beverage Museum is the most visible division of the SoFAB Institute, it isn’t the only one. Dobard is based in Los Angeles and has been directing SoFAB Institute events on the West Coast in partnership with other venues. Many of these are under the banner of the Museum of the American Cocktail and its Touring the Cocktail program. These events will now continue monthly in New Orleans as well, taking on various facets of cocktail culture.
“I hesitate to call them seminars,” said Dobard. “We do serve cocktails. These are liquid events.”
Eventually, casual museum visitors may be partaking, too. The museum is home to Purloo, a modern Southern restaurant and bar from chef Ryan Hughes. Purloo began serving dinner in early January, and when it adds lunch later this year and its schedule covers the museum’s operating hours, visitors will be able to order drinks as they peruse the exhibits.
“You’re reading about the Sazerac and its history and then you can go and buy a Sazerac at the bar,” Dobard said. “Then you can go for the same thing for the next drink.”
For this week’s cocktail collection rededication and debut, Touring the Cocktail takes a more theatrical bent. Dubbed “King Cocktail in Story and Song,” it will be a narrative and musical presentation from DeGroff and Dobard tracing DeGroff’s career in the drinks business.
DeGroff is widely credited with helping stir the craft cocktail renaissance, starting with his work in the 1980s as a bartender at New York’s Rainbow Room.
He has since authored cocktail books, branded his own line of bitters, helped inform and inspire a generation of cocktail enthusiasts and professionals and now works as a consultant to the industry.
“In a way his story is a history of what’s happened with the cocktail,” said Dobard. “There are any number of people who were responsible for the cocktail renaissance, but if you had to point to one person, it would be Dale.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.