Meet John deBary - Author of Drink What You Want
Some people think that if you have seen one cocktail book, you have seen them all. That is, until they get their hands on Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails by the New York-based LGBT NoLo profile John deBary. We managed to grab an hour with him to talk about his book, his journey from the corporate world into bartending, and his new alcohol-free botanical drink, Proteau.
John is something as rare as a native New Yorker in New York, he has spent his whole life there, and got into the drinks trade by pure coincidence. Unlike most people that start with bartending, usually young, maybe right after college or before a corporate career, John was 25 and already working in an office when he ran into an old friend. That friend was the bartender Don Lee. He had just started at a new bar called PDT (Please Don't Tell), set up by the iconic NYC bartender Jim Meehan. PDT had gone from being a little-known speakeasy to one of the hottest cocktail bars in town – in the world, in fact – and they needed a lot more staff. PDT has held this status for years now, as the many articles written about it can testify. Don agreed that John could do two shifts behind the bar. Turns out, that was all it took to get bitten by the bartending bug. John realised quickly that he was nowhere near as good as his fellow five-star bartenders, some of the best in the industry. He confesses, ‘I was a late bartender bloomer, was totally clueless, I didn’t know what I was doing.’ Rather than being intimidated or giving up, he committed himself to learning the craft from scratch. He read all the books, got all the tools and drinks, and practiced as much as he could when he wasn't working. He decided to take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn from the best.
His decision paid off; not long after, he quit his day job and went all in on hospitality. A year later he was made an offer to join the acclaimed Momofuku restaurant group, where he was appointed the group's bar director. Whilst working at Momofuku his job was to create the drinks menu for all their bars and restaurants, and train new bartenders how to make drinks, as well as teaching the other members of staff how to talk about the drinks. As if that wasn’t enough, at the same time he also co-founded the Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation, a non-profit focused on improving the quality of life of hospitality employees.
It was during his time at Momofuku that John got the opportunity to take his knowledge to the next level. He had always been interested in drinks with a strong herbal base and a lot of character, like Fernet-Branca, vermouth or absinthe. So, in his quest to develop his own understanding and help his team to better understand what goes into making different spirits, he decided to get more hands-on. He started buying herbs, teas and plants from specialist shops and importers all over New York.
It was around this time that he decided to capture his insights in a book, but he wanted to give it an edge. He explains, ‘I wanted to make an anti-cocktail book.’ Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails became an autobiography, an art book and a drinks discovery book. Unlike most cocktail books that go into a lot of deep detail and cover recipe after recipe based on their spirit base, which can feel alienating to some people, John took a different approach. First of all, the chapters are grouped into feelings, like ‘Feeling Lazy’ or `Feeling Fancy’, encouraging the reader to pick a drink to match their frame of mind. In short, he is basically saying anything goes, the most important thing is that you try. ‘If someone tells you a certain cocktail is tacky or not good, that’s their problem.’ The book provides some basic guardrails to give you some structure, but beyond that it’s up to you what you want to make, and how you want to make it.
John breaks down the science of mixology and explains the old rules of drink-making. Most important, you'll learn how to tweak any drink, both classic and creative, to your preferences and moods. Once you understand how different types of ingredients work together, you can make almost any drink taste great. John is very much in favour of just throwing stuff together and being creative with it. ‘Work with what you have and just aim to make yourself happy.’ While giving newbies a rundown of cocktail culture, lingo, and etiquette, John turns the ‘cocktail book’ concept on its ear by infusing a traditionally formal topic with his fresh, conversational voice. Whilst the book is primarily about alcoholic cocktails, there is a chapter about non-alc as well. However, we found that in most cases the spirits can easily be replaced with alcohol-free counterparts.
Jim Meehan, the co-founder of the PDT club, said about the book, ‘John's cocky (pun very much intended), idiosyncratic, culturally literate, OCD voice is like the subject matter itself: bold, brash, bitter, exacting, and occasionally scandalous. His book is the Corpse Reviver (Number Blue, of course) bartenders and enthusiasts have been thirsting for. For this, and to witness John step out as he does ahead, I'm honored to position the coaster.’
As we mentioned earlier, John had amassed quite the collection of botanicals, and that’s when it hit him: he should try to make his own botanical drink with it. And that’s how Proteau was born.
He didn’t set out to create an alcohol-free drink as such, that is just how it turned out. He wanted to create a drink that could carry flavour well, had a nice texture and that most people would enjoy drinking. He also wanted it to be ready to drink, like a beer or a bottle of wine – no fuss. He wanted to create something that was intellectually engaging and could complement a culinary experience.
Whilst a lot of alcohol-free botanical drinks are aiming to replace a cocktail, Proteau stands on its own feet and should be drunk as is – on its own, not as a replacement for something else, but as an addition. Proteau isn’t for sale in the UK just yet, but watch this space!
As you can tell, John has accomplished a lot despite his young years, and we are excited to follow him to see where he goes next. You can follow him too, on Instagram: @jnd3001 and @drinkproteau, his spirit brand. You can find his book on the Penguin Random House website, http://penguinrandomhouse.com/.