Within the insular boundaries of the cocktail world, Don Lee is a legend. As a catch-all “Director of Product Development and Education”—per his business card—he can often be found at home perfecting the art of marijuana-infused mezcal, sewing his own puppets or designing a more precise dasher bottle for bitters using a 3-D printer. By day, Lee is the head of Tales of the Cocktail’s CAP program, which he’s led for nearly a decade.
A third-degree Taekwondo black belt and modern day Renaissance man, Lee didn’t set out to become a bartender at all; he studied swing dancing in high school and, after an injury deterred his plans to become a cadet at West Point, he headed to Columbia University, where he received a degree in photography. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, after he’d become an IT Administrator, that he took up cocktailing, spending an inordinate amount of time drinking through—and studying—the lists at Pegu Club, Milk & Honey and the bygone LeNell’s in Red Hook. In 2007, he started taking shifts at Death & Co.; later, he helped open PDT with Jim Meehan, the bar where Lee created the modern-classic Benton’s Old Fashioned, made with one of his earliest inventions: bacon fat-infused bourbon. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here, Lee shares his go-to drink in a dive bar, reveals his obsessions with Hamilton and Stormtrooper armor and spreads the gospel of a free-drink utopia. —Lizzie Munro
What do want to be when you grow up?
Best thing you ever drank:
Tobalá distilled by Espiridion Morales Luis, the palenquero of Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Bong water, but I didn’t… inhale? I mean, swallow? Something, something, plausible deniability; I take the 5th.
First time you ever got drunk:
First trip to Korea without family the summer after high school. A 375ml bottle of soju cost about $1, while a strip of pork belly Korean BBQ was $3. Therefore, my consumption pattern was three-parts soju to one-part Korean BBQ. I’ve now know to balance it closer to 1.5 : 1 and eat more banchan.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I have no barometer for “weird.” I’m currently building a full set of Stormtrooper armor, making Jim Henson-style puppets, programing an Arduino robot that emotes only via eye rotation and teaching people how to raid in Destiny on the weekends. All of that seems normal to me. And to anyone who I share any of those hobbies with, the weirdest thing about me is my work with cocktails.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Whatever’s on the menu that has either an agave distillate or sherry.
In a dive bar?
Guinness and a Jameson
Preferred hangover recovery regime:
Asian soups with or without noodles. Ramen, pho, any Korean jjiage, etc.
One thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Prices? Let’s get to the post-scarcity, everything-is-free Star Trek utopia already. “Computer! Negroni, stirred, on the rocks!”
Your life mantra:
This too shall pass… unless you’re a Balrog, in which case YOU SHALL NOT PASS!
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I’ve had the cast recording of Hamilton on repeat since it came out.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Salmon fat-washed aquavit with everything bagel spices
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever received:
Someone once asked me for vodka on the rocks in a Collins glass with a straw and water on the side. When I complied, they added a packet of Emergen-C to the vodka, poured water over it and stirred it with the straw. My only logical response was to offer an orange slice as a garnish.
Eleven Madison Park
Best meal you’ve ever had:
Sushi Yasuda, 2004. First time having “real” sushi. There were multiple times where I couldn’t chew because I was smiling so hard.
The last text message you sent:
6 drops = 1 dash
41 dashes = 1 oz