Though he may describe himself as “ambivalently retired,” John deBary nonetheless continues to be a driving force of the cocktail zeitgeist. Having honed his skills at legendary New York speakeasy PDT before serving as bar director for the Momofuku restaurant group, deBary has since stepped away from the bar, but his passion for drinks and their cultural connections remains. While his first book, Drink What You Want (2020), offered a judgment-free guide to better cocktailing, his newest, Saved by the Bellini (2023), takes a playful dive into ’90s nostalgia and demonstrates deBary’s chops for original drink creation. We talked with deBary about everything from his favorite ’90s pop culture moments to his ongoing commitment to education and philanthropy within the industry—not to mention those subversive Easter eggs hidden in Melrose Place.
Imbibe: What inspired the angle for this new book? Do you have fond memories of the ’90s?
John deBary: Well, I was not cool; I was really not cool. Maybe that’s a good ulterior, subconscious motive—I picked out all these things that I loved in the ’90s in an effort to retroactively make them cool, a way for me to rehabilitate my ’90s teenage self. But as I mention in the introduction, my formative years were the ’90s. I entered as an 8-year-old and walked out as a 19-year-old about to go to college, so it was a very salient decade for me. Plus, I was feeling unsure of what to write about next, and writing a direct sequel to Drink What You Want was uninspiring; I didn’t know if I had the creative juice to do something so straightforward. I wanted to think of something that was really unique—not another cocktail book that was just recipes, but using drinks as a vehicle for a topic. And by the time you get to “Saved by the Bellini” as a pun, the book kind of writes itself.
And all the drinks are original? What came first, the recipes or the references?
“I picked out all these things that I loved in the ’90s in an effort to retroactively make them cool, a way for me to rehabilitate my ’90s teenage self.”
Most of them are original, and a few are more direct riffs. But as opposed to my first book where it was a lot of classics, like my best version of a Daiquiri or whatever, these are for the most part drinks where I came up with the thing I wanted to write about and then created a drink toward that. So I would think, how do I make a “Life finds a way” cocktail? Maybe I make a whey cocktail that has allusions to Central America? Basically, how do I make this fun piece of writing actually elicit a behavior in the reader so that they’ll make a delicious drink that will remind them of “Barbie Girl” or Tamagotchi. My editor and I had a huge Google doc that we threw so many ideas onto and unfortunately I had to narrow it down to 65.
What ended up being your favorite recipe or reference in the book?
Well, the drink itself is really delicious, but a good allegory for the way the book came together is the Melrose Place cocktail. I loved that show and I was weirdly allowed to watch it when I was like 12. So I was looking into it, and I found out that there was this very highbrow art project that was woven into the set design, where a conceptual artist planted subversive props into the scenes that weren’t acknowledged by the characters. For instance, there was a character who had a blanket with the chemical structure for RU-486 on it, and in the scene the character is talking about getting an abortion. Heather Locklear’s character also takes on the museum that is sponsoring the project as a client on the show, so it became this meta-cyclical thing, where this secret art project was in the show and then the show overtly incorporated the museum as part of the plot without acknowledging the artwork. It seemed like a very ’90s thing, where the internet was starting to become more of a thing and pop culture became more meta-textual. It was emblematic of how pivotal the decade was, where it was still kind of old-school with network TV, but it couldn’t have been done in the ’80s, and presages the way we consume media now. In the show, her ad agency is called D&D, so I made a Dark ‘n’ Stormy riff but it’s the “Dark & Datey” with date-infused rum. It goes beyond just saying, “Hey, remember Melrose Place?” into this element that not as many people were aware of.
You also serve on Bar Convent Brooklyn’s education committee. In terms of seminar proposals and what people in the industry are asking for, what do you see as some of the strongest areas of interest right now?
“I was struck last year, as we were getting back together in person, about how the sustainability of the industry became really prevalent.”
Last year we received maybe 100 submissions. It was really cool to see where people are thinking—either what they are wanting to see or what they’re wanting other people to see. I was struck last year, as we were getting back together in person, about how the sustainability of the industry became really prevalent. The people who started bartending at the height of the cocktail renaissance in the late aughts have now been in the business for 10 or 15 years and are thinking about what the long-term plan is and how to make the business work—actually running sustainable businesses, both from a human perspective for your staff but also for climate change. A lot of the ideas that I saw from five years ago, like recycling lime peels, those sort of marginal ideas, are starting to be more mainstream and people are starting to think about what we can do in a deeper way beyond what is visible to the consumer. And then, of course, nonalcoholic cocktails and spirits and drinks—we saw a lot of interest in that, as well as tons of interest in agave spirits. The agave train has been going strong for a few years and doesn’t seem to be slowing down, so I’m curious to see how it will compare year over year.
You’re also co-founder and board president of the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation (RWCF). What do you see as some of the biggest issues facing the industry? Where is the RWCF putting its focus?
The idea for the initiative started in 2016 [then founded in 2018], thinking about the underlying condition of restaurant workers, the quality-of-life crisis that has been persistent for decades. The pandemic was something that really helped to make our case to the world and was a huge proof point for why this organization needed to exist. We started a Covid relief fund on like day four of the lockdowns. We just wanted to do our part, and suddenly we ended up getting millions of dollars and we were able to turn that around really quickly and get it out to organizations that directly grant the money to individuals. We have a new executive director who used to work in the LA mayor’s office addressing homelessness, so now I think we’re beginning to look more toward what we were originally founded on, in terms of starting to develop systemic solutions to these problems—why are restaurant workers facing these quality-of-life crises? Of course, Covid hit the industry hard, but there was already this underlying vulnerability in the restaurant worker population due to years of policy neglect, both government policies and individual business policies. So we’re trying to become a pretty significant fundraising operation to support all of our grantees and at the same time begin to say that we need to restructure how our society interacts with the restaurant industry, so that these people—our community—can be well supported through hardship.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I definitely have a pretty full dance card, but I do have some consulting projects in the works this year, so I’ll be getting back into working in restaurants! I won’t be behind the bar, but I’ll be interfacing with owners and staff and developing menus and building spirits lists, which is what I did for so long, so getting to do that again is nice.