Mixology Q&A with John deBary, creator of Proteau, activist, author, journalist, NYC bar expert, and Food52's Resident Drink Expert

Posted by Boisson Staff on

When it came to titling this blog post, we didn't mean to shortchange his credentials but there simply wasn't enough character space to express what an influence John deBary is to the hospitality world. Grab a glass of Proteau and read on for this delightful exchange with the supremely talented and incredibly thoughtful JdB.

First off, can you introduce a little bit about yourself and your accomplishments in the mixology world. 

John deBary with bottles of his zero proof botanical line, Proteau

Sure! I got my start bartending at the iconic neo-speakeasy PDT, where I stayed for a total of five-and-a-half years. I also worked for the Momofuku group for nine years as their first corporate bar director, where I opened an absurd amount of restaurants, trained hundreds of people, and oversaw over a dozen bar programs. I worked with Food & Wine magazine for four years on their annual cocktail special issue, and eventually went on to write a book of my own, Drink What You Want, that came out in 2020. While I was writing, I got really good at procrastinating, and one of my projects was tinkering around with botanicals, which is essentially the superhero origin story for Proteau.

What originally brought you into the mixology business and what made you stay to achieve your level of expertise? Was your journey more or less what you had envisioned from the beginning, or were there pivots or surprises along the way?

I got a job at PDT as something to do while I was studying for my LSATs. That all went away when after only a few months of bartending I got my photo and quote in a story in the New York Times about the craft cocktail revival that was going on in NYC at the time. I stayed in it because I loved the idea of providing experiences for people. The tangibility and immediacy of hospitality was—and still is—so exciting to me. You make a drink in front of someone and you watch them drink it and their whole outlook shifts. I guess one surprise I can think of right now is how I grew up in a fancy suburb of NYC and went to Columbia, and there was this message that “smart” people went into high-paying jobs after going to grad school or whatever, and I’ve found some of the most intelligent and hardworking people gravitate towards hospitality, regardless of background. The idea that you need to be elite in order to make a meaningful contribution to society is so false.

Before we dive into shop talk, we wanted to say we so admire your work as co-founder of Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation. Can you share what your foundation does and any current news or initiatives?

Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation logo

Thanks. The idea for Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation started in 2016 during an epic post-election text message meltdown I was sharing with my co-founder Alex Pemoulie. We wanted to build a structure that would help to support the industry and aggregate all of the power and generosity within the hospitality industry to help address systemic oppression that exists in outsized proportions for workers. I am lucky to be married to him for a lot of reasons, but my husband Michael Remaley has worked in philanthropy and nonprofits his whole career, and he really helped us to define the specific legal and financial structure for the organization. (He’s just as much a co-founder as me or Alex, but he shies away from the title.)

It took us a few years to get our ducks in a row and build the board and achieve tax-exempt status, and we launched formally in 2018, but it wasn’t until 2020 when the pandemic crashed down around us that we saw the impact of our organization grow. We raised $8M for relief efforts that year, and have been able to hire staff and build a network of board members, volunteers, funders, and grantee organizations so much more quickly than I would have imagined when we were starting out.

Going into 2022 our mission to address quality-of-life issues for workers is achieved through grant-making, community building, and impact investing. Even though we’ve been able to do so much since 2018, we’re really just getting started.

You had previously mentioned the concept of creating a blank canvas for how people think about drinking and the value of having nonalcoholic drinks that aren't linked to an alcoholic reference point. Can you elaborate on this?

What excites me about the category is not the possibility of tricking someone into thinking they’re drinking “real” spirits, but it’s really about creating an entirely new framework for how we think about drinks and their structure. Alcohol—ethanol specifically—is a great tool. It is a solvent so it carries flavors much more powerfully than water, and it has a lighter texture and lower boiling point than water so it feels so different on the palate; it’s also very noticeable and distinctive. I always felt like chasing that is a losing game, plus moving alcohol out of the way allows you to play with more subtle and nuanced flavors because you don’t have to contend with the powerful sensations that alcohol supplies.

Our customers love your zero-proof botanical line, Proteau. What was your inspiration to create Proteau? 

people enjoying Proteau Rivington Spritz and Ludlow Red in the park

I’m delighted to hear that! As someone who spent so much time thinking about cocktails in a restaurant context, I wanted to create a ready-to-drink line of drinks that were perfect accompaniments to food. I love anything botanical and drinkable: gin, vermouth, absinthe, amaro—so featuring those ingredients was really important to me. I wanted it to not only be an easy ‘solution’ for people at home, but also an easy off-the-shelf option for bars and restaurants that needed a complex, interesting option to put on their menus without having to spend a lot of effort preparing their own ingredients.

How did Ludlow and Rivington each get their names and flavor profile? And while we're at it, how did Proteau get its name?

I have lived in NYC since 2001 and have lived in the Lower East Side specifically since 2006. I named them after iconic LES street names. For Rivington Spritz I wanted to feature the co-mingling of Chinese rhubarb, strawberry, and gentian with the other elements—chamomile, hibiscus and champagne vinegar—supporting those flavors. Ludlow Red was all about the pairing of black pepper and blackberry, and I threw in licorice, roasted dandelion root, florals and fig vinegar to create an extremely complex drink that evolves as it warms in the glass. (It’s also fabulous hot.)

"Accessibility is the core of hospitality."

As a NYC bar expert, what's your perspective on the nonalcoholic movement and the future of bar culture? How would you say your opinion compares or contrasts with your colleagues?

Accessibility is the core of hospitality. If you are trying to create a hospitable environment, whether that’s in your home or restaurant, and you tell people who don’t drink alcohol “tough shit” that’s a huge failure. Things have changed so much in the past few years. Not too long ago I would go into fancy, forward-thinking bars and restaurants and would get weird glances if I asked for something non-alcoholic. Thankfully now it’s become pretty much standard to at least have a couple non-alc options, and I think we have more to look forward in terms of greater acceptance of zero-proof drinks.

We love your book Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails. In addition to picking up a copy, what would be your "first steps" advice to a novice interested in exploring nonalcoholic alternatives?

John deBary's book, Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails

One of the main lessons of my book is to learn to trust yourself with what you like. Drinking—and the enjoyment of it—is such a deeply personal and subjective experience. If you think something is delicious (or vile) there is no way someone can tell you you’re wrong. They can disagree with you, sure, but they can’t take that enjoyment away from you (nor should they try). I urge people to try as many things as possible and pay careful attention to not only what you like, but why. This will give you a beginning framework on which to build your expertise.

Our motto at Boisson is seeing the Glass Half-Full. How do you think alcohol-free alternatives allow people to see the glass half-full?

One of my taglines for Proteau is “Drink for Pleasure” and I think it encapsulates so much of what I love about the non-alc movement. I want people to come to these drinks purely in pursuit of deliciousness. With alcohol’s physiological effects it’s easy for drinking to have an ulterior motive. When you don’t have that to rely on, the margin for error is much smaller, so you need to make sure every choice, every ingredient counts.

Click to check out John deBary's food pairing guide and custom cocktail created especially for Boisson!

john debary with his selects for his pairing guide
Portrait & Proteau photography by Aaron Robin
Portrait photography in-store at Boisson by Walter Wall

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