“Ultimately this book is for everyone,” cocktail expert and author John deBary writes in the introduction to his recently released Drink What You Want. “But if you’ve never made a drink in your entire life and you don’t know the difference between an old-fashioned and a gin and tonic, you are my target demographic.”
Organized by mood, feeling, or situation, the recipes found in Drink What You Want are fun (!) to read and deeply informative. But just because deBary is targeting first-time cocktail-shakers doesn’t mean the book is overly simplistic. (Case in point: a large-format, "meal-prepper" martini recipe calls for one bottle of gin, one bottle of vermouth, 375 milliliters of water, and a quarter ounce of bitters—all poured into a mixing bowl and stashed in the freezer. Or, a whisky sour shaken with preserves—a one-ingredient swap that provides consistent flavor and sweetness. Think smarter, not harder.)
In the time it takes to slice your citrus, deBary rattles off a drink’s build, brief cultural history, and opportunities for reinvention. Drink What You Want decidedly unstuffs what can be a very stuffy sphere—a testament to deBary’s breadth of knowledge, with over a decade’s experience designing and crafting drinks at New York City’s PDT and for David Chang’s Momofuku empire, plus his work as an educator: deBary has trained the bar teams at more than 10 of Chang’s restaurants.
Last week, we chatted on the phone about the book’s release, what makes a great cocktail, and which bar item deBary would pick to be stranded on a desert island with. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Coral Lee: So, what is a cocktail?
John deBary: The core starting point for this book, for me, was to break up the mythology, or gatekeeping, around who is good at making drinks and who is not. I sought out the most “prime number” definition of a cocktail to use as a starting point: A cocktail is two things mixed together to create something new. Unlike crafting a beer or wine, where you’re more shepherding a process, building a cocktail is more deliberate and can be shaped according to the drinker’s preferences.
CL: And what makes a good cocktail?
JD: What determines deliciousness, subjectively, are these “soft” categories: memory, cultural background, and setting—where you are and who you are with. So much of what makes a drink good is the context: If you’re caught in a storm, a glass of water will, honestly, sound pretty gross. But after a hot run, there are few things more delicious than a cool glass of water. Nothing about the water has changed; you’ve changed. You have to match your mood with your setting to get a perfect cocktail.
As for objective measurements, there’s how acidic a drink is—which you can measure with pH—and how strong a drink is, measurable by A.B.V. The best drinks are ones that meet both of these objective measures well.
CL: What are the elements to be considered when balancing a cocktail?
JD: There’s dilution, temperature, acid, and bitterness. Dilution can be controlled a few ways: by mixing with ingredients of higher or lower A.B.V., or with a specific method—like shaking versus stirring, to name just two. Drinks don’t always need to be served cold, either—some are best served hot or even at room temperature. Acid and bitterness provide not only a bracing feeling or sensation, but backbone and structure to a drink. In the same way we can use salt in our cooking without making food explicitly salty, we can use acid and bitterness to make a tasty drink.
CL: Exactly! I think most home cooks feel at least somewhat equipped to save a lackluster dish (by tinkering with acid, salt, and fat levels), but how would you advise approaching a lackluster cocktail?
JD: That’s something that comes with practice. I’d start by experimenting with ratios in already beloved, simple drinks—two drinks that’d be easy to try this with are an old-fashioned and a daiquiri. See what happens if you increase the whiskey or rum, and decrease the citrus or syrup; then, try omitting or adding more bitters. And take note of what ratios you liked and didn’t like.
CL: Do you have tips on turning out still-impressive cocktails at home, given limited time and equipment limitations?
JD: Large-format recipes, like punches, are safer and more forgiving. But what makes a drink really good are the simple things done well: dilution, how fresh the citrus is, shaking with the right amount of force. I really don’t believe in there being just one right tool or ingredient; we can all get the job done with whatever we have.
CL: So then, if you were stranded on a desert island with only one bar item—what would it be?
JD: There’s the classic bartender answer, and there’s my real answer. The classic bartender answer is a shaker. Aeration of a cocktail is hard to get with any other means. And it could double as a stirring glass.
But if I were on a real desert island, like the plane had crashed and nothing survived, I’d bring a deli container. You can use it as a shaker, and just peel back the lid to strain out the ice.