“I was able to kind of sneak in without any real experience,” admits John deBary on landing his first bartending job, at Please Don’t Tell, back in 2008. He cites his connection with college friend Don Lee as his “in,” although deBary learned the ropes quickly. Within a year he began picking up shifts at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, where Lee launched the cocktail program in 2009; DeBary worked his way up from part-time bartender to bar director for the entire restaurant group in the span of just four years.
While he hasn’t been behind the bar since leaving Momofuku, deBary has found other ways to stay tethered to the bar world. In the process of writing his forthcoming book, Drink What You Want, he’s carved out a space he describes as counterculture in cocktail literature. Where the genre tends to skew academic, deBary instead focuses on the middle ground between preparing a whiskey neat and concocting an Aviary-like experimental cocktail. “That’s like saying, ‘I can never make a salad because I’m not Daniel Boulud,’” he explains of the commonly perceived barrier to entry. “But you absolutely can. You know what makes sense—you don’t put four cups of salad dressing and half a cup of lettuce,” insists deBary. “Or even how much cream and sugar you like in your coffee—that’s literally a cocktail!”
In the midst of book-writing, last year deBary launched Proteau, a non-alcoholic aperitif. With an extensive background in cocktails and spirits, he sees the non-alcoholic space as a welcome challenge. “The true test of someone creating [non-alcoholic] cocktails is whether you can make something on the same level and speak to people in the same way that a Manhattan does.” For deBary, this meant starting from scratch to create a botanical- and fruit-based aperitif that is more than just a product to swap in for amari or spirits, instead something completely singular.
So, what does deBary do when he’s not perfecting his latest drink formulas? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share the weirdest cocktail experiment he’s tried, the one album he’d listen to on loop for the rest of his life and the first time he got drunk. —Tatiana Bautista
Creator of Proteau, a line of non-alcoholic botanical drinks; co-founder and board president of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation; author of Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails, published by Clarkson Potter, June 2020.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I was 22, I dressed like a middle-aged dad, and now that I’m in my late 30s, I dress like a teenage psychedelia enthusiast. I don’t think “growing up” is the direction I’m headed.
Best thing you ever drank:
I went to Spago in Beverly Hills for the first time in 2015 with my husband for his birthday. We ordered a bottle of vintage (I think 2007) Egly-Ouriet Champagne. It was so good I almost started crying.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Many years ago, a colleague of mine was working on an “umami” cocktail with some cursed attempt at infusing Parmesan cheese into a spirit. The cocktail tasted like semen (and not in a good way).
First time you ever got drunk:
At an after-party for my 10th grade dance. I somehow got my hands on a bottle of Kahlúa and thought it would be a good idea to drink it straight from the bottle.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Beaucoup Fish by Underworld.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Collecting lipstick at an alarming pace.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Facebook is bad for you.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Aside from the aforementioned inadvertent jizz cocktail? For a while I was really fixated on making drinks that were two different temperatures at the same time. I was more or less able to pull it off, but realized that the drink asked too much of the drinker merely to go along with a needless demonstration of my technical abilities, which to me, is the opposite of hospitality.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Reading books, exercising and Googling skincare ingredients.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
It’s been over five years since I’ve actually been behind a bar and in a position to take requests, but the ones that always raised my eyebrows were the ones that conflated gender with a glassware type or ingredient. Like, dude, if you need a drink to validate your masculinity, you should probably talk to a therapist.
Your favorite bar, and why:
It’s so far in my past that it’s nearly fictional, but I have a vivid memory of drinking virgin Piña Coladas at a swim-up bar in some random resort in Cancún I went to with my parents when I was eight. There is something so absurd and delightful about swim-up bars. People ask me all the time if I want to open my own bar, and the answer is always no, but I would make an exception if someone wanted me to do a swim-up bar.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
If I could relive any dining experience, it would be my 18th birthday dinner that I had at Windows on the World in October 2000.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
For me it’s a professional courtesy to at least start with something from the place’s menu—something shaken, with lime juice, whatever.
In a dive bar?
Beer, or tonic water.
Your preferred hangover recovery regimen:
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The last text message you sent:
[drunk face emoji]