Be Your Own Bartender

Drink What You Want COV
After the year we just had, who doesn’t have cocktails on the brain? There simply couldn’t be a better time for the clever compendium Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails by John deBary ’05 (Clarkson Potter, $25).

deBary honed his philosophy of cocktail making during a decade behind the bar at some of the hottest spots in the world, and as the bar director of the Momofuku restaurant group. His egalitarian teaching approach focuses less on arcane details like drink history or science, and more on helping people better understand what they like in a beverage. “I want people with no experience to be able to make drinks,” he says. “I want to bring more people in.”

Drink What You Want outlines the basics of ingredients, equipment and technique, then delivers the recipes in choose-your-own-adventure-style, arranged by scenarios such as Feeling Classic, Feeling Fancy and Feeling Festive. Charming illustrations and legit-funny footnotes (“like David Foster Wallace in drag,” mixologist Jim Meehan says in the intro) help readers parse deBary’s logic and add delightfully campy presence.

For deBary, attending the College was something of an inevitability. His grandfather was Wm. Theodore de Bary ’41, GSAS’53, who all but single-handedly established the field of East Asian Studies in the West; his father is Paul de Bary ’68, BUS’71, LAW’71, and his aunts and cousins are Columbia and Barnard grads. He grew up watching football at Baker Field with his grandfather, who never missed a game, and fondly remembers strolling College Walk as a child, fantasizing about being a student.

Sarah Tanat-Jones © 2020

He never expected his time at the College to lead to a bartending career. But a Thursday night class at the Columbia Bartending Agency introduced him to drink making; later, his Wallach roommate Don Lee ’03 got him into nerdy food culture. After graduation, deBary went to Japan for a few months; when he returned and was looking for work, he reached out to Lee, who had become a figure in New York’s craft cocktail revival scene and had recently opened the speakeasy PDT (Please Don’t Tell). Lee let him train behind the bar and deBary promptly fell in love. “Bartending is immediate,” he says. “It happens right in front of you; you’re taking care of someone and making them happy.” deBary had thought he would go to law school, but he ditched that plan and dove into cocktail books instead. “I was reading about famous bartenders from the 1860s, their recipes and philosophies, all this nerdy academic stuff that was very suited to my disposition.”

Both PDT and deBary soon gained notoriety; in 2009 he started splitting his time between PDT and restaurateur David Chang’s Momofuku group. He went full-time at Momofuku in 2013 and eventually became the company’s first bar director, a position he held for five years. Chang’s playful and imaginative approach to cuisine challenged deBary to be innovative. “When we were opening Nishi — R.I.P. — David wanted all the drinks to be Italian without using anything from Italy,” he laughs. “Having those restrictions only led to more creativity.”

In his director role, deBary wrote dozens of training manuals; he also worked on Food & Wine’s annual cocktail issue for four years, sourcing and testing recipes from all over the country. “It was great practice in developing recipes and taking notes, so that people who weren’t me could understand it,” he says. In 2018, he was approached to create his own book; right away he had ideas about how to make Drink What You Want special.

He chose illustrations over photography because he didn’t want the cocktail images to be proscriptive. “I wanted something to show the idea, but it was OK if what readers made didn’t exactly look that way,” he says. And he wanted to appear throughout the book as a character. deBary loves both Japan and lipstick; his cartoon self is a fiercely glam anime star.

Teetotalers won’t miss out on the fun. deBary says he sees the non-alcoholic space as a welcome challenge; there’s a Drink What You Want chapter called Feeling Sober, and in the midst of writing, he launched Proteau, a line of zero-proof botanical drinks.

deBary is also an advocate for bar and restaurant workers. In 2015, with help from former Momofuku colleagues and his husband, Michael, a philanthropic advisor, deBary co-founded the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF). The nonprofit raises money, provides grants and addresses quality of life issues in the restaurant industry.

“I wanted to do something because I was aware of my own privilege. I had been given a lot of opportunities and trust right off the bat, and that isn’t true for a lot of people,” deBary says. “It’s sort of endemic, the racial divide between front of house and back of house. It’s changing for the better now, but it wasn’t much of a conversation five years ago.”

When the industry went into freefall almost immediately after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, RWCF set up a fund to support restaurant workers and lend stability to restaurants on their way to reopening. The Covid fund has raised more than $7 million since March.

A true-blue Columbian, when deBary considers his place in the cocktail world, he touches on the Core. “There’s this joke I would always hear in Core classes, ‘You’re not going to need this information when you’re a doctor or a lawyer, but you’ll be really good at cocktail parties.’ And it’s like: ‘Haha, now that’s my job.’”

Illustration reprinted with permission from Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails by John deBary, copyright © 2020. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Get the recipe for deBary’s favorite cocktail (and more!) at Online Extras.