When developing a cocktail, most bartenders start from the inside and work out, building a drink around a base spirit, flavor or ratio. You could say Columbus, Ohio–based bartender David Yee works from the outside in.
“A lot of my process for making a drink is not necessarily imagining the drink, but imagining the atmosphere around the drink,” says Yee. “The drink has to be good enough to live up to the room, you know?” It’s an approach to cocktail creation that borrows from Yee’s literary, scene-setting imagination—he holds a master’s in fiction from Ohio State University, and when he’s not bartending, he’s usually writing.
Reading sparked his creativity from an early age. Growing up without a TV, Yee found entertainment in devouring chunky tomes of fantasy literature.
He traces his winding path to becoming a bartender back to taking a barista job at Starbucks, which allowed him to write but also educated his palate. Enrolled in the company’s Black Apron program, he learned how to identify and talk about flavors, at one point tasting through brews from 20 coffee regions around the world. His next stop was a cushy office job in Baltimore, where he found himself spending weekend nights at the city’s leading craft cocktail bar in Fells Point. “I learned how to drink cocktails there,” Yee says.
After pivoting to get his MFA, a friend offered him a gig working the door for a bar, which led to barbacking, then bartending, and now a position as assistant general manager. Given to throwing himself headfirst into his interests, he hopes to open a bar of his own eventually.
One of the first cocktails he made—Ghost Story, a sour variation with Irish whiskey, black walnut liqueur, Angostura bitters and lemon juice—set a pattern for the kind of cocktail he’s drawn to. “Keep it as simple as possible,” he says, looking to New York’s OG craft cocktail bars and San Francisco bartender Erick Castro for inspiration. “Making new or modern classics that are replicable—that’s the school of thought.”
From writing, he’s learned to chase inspiration until he hits a wall—which is often where the moment of breakthrough occurs. He remembers wanting to create a Daiquiri that would play off the vegetal notes of Wray & Nephew rum by pairing it with Pimm’s, but he kept running up against the rum’s overpowering presence. Taking a step back, he figured he could cut the overproof Wray & Nephew to a half-ounce, and supplement it with an aged rum. The drink fell into place.
Next on his docket? “It’s been a goal of mine to invent the next great trash shot,” he says. “I’m always chasing that drink that’s so obvious that no one’s discovered it yet. That kind of ‘aha!’ moment is the quest of a lot of art.”
What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
I write fiction and essays. I moved to Columbus to go to grad school for creative writing and began teaching while I was there. Writing and teaching writing are my drives.
How does it inspire you?
Narratives can be a million things, but for me, they are often a meditation on purpose. Writing a good story is about channeling a thought, a state of emotion, onto the page. Doing it right is the best feeling in the world. That same sense of accomplishment drives me to be as individual as possible behind the bar while still paying respect to my mentors, my idols.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Be kind. It’s the simplest, most difficult thing to accomplish.
Describe your creative process in one sentence.
Keep working until it doesn’t suck.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
Meeting so many inspiring people, and crying over hot chicken in front of [Bombay Sapphire master distiller] Dr. Anne Brock.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Author/bar owner or the highest-paid barback of all time.
Best thing you ever drank:
Old Grand-Dad 114 straight.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Fernet Latte in Los Angeles. It sounded so good on paper.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Ramen spice pack–inspired Toki Manhattan. It would’ve been good, but I was sabotaged. I stand by the idea.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Reading and writing.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Anything in Return by Toro y Moi.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I wouldn’t say it’s weird, but I watch a lot of battle rap on YouTube.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
No one cares what kind of jeans you’re wearing.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Bloody Mary, up. But honestly, respect?
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Honestly, if I’m going to order a cocktail at a cocktail bar, I’ll order off the house menu. Even the worst cocktail menu is a labor of love, and I don’t always need a Sazerac.
Shot and a beer. Agave all summer. Whiskey all winter.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Smoked cocktails. And butterfly urine extract or whatever it is.
The last text message you sent: