There is no shortage of old-timey, Prohibition era-themed cocktail bars in this city. It’s much more difficult to find places that are making truly innovative modern cocktails, of the sort that can be found at PDT, which is rolling out its new fall cocktail menu this week. Another such bar is better known as a restaurant. Momofuku Ssäm Bar is gearing up to launch a rather unorthodox new fall cocktail menu in the next week or two. The teaser? Pretzel foam. John deBary, who works at both establishments, sat down with Fork in the Road to talk forward-thinking drinks.
Are the two bars very different to work at?
I would say I spend a little more time at Ssäm, but it’s a pretty even split between the two. At PDT, we have Jim [Meehan] running the show, but at Ssäm, we have another bartender from PDT, a bartender from Mà Pêche, a bartender from Dutch Kills, and we all get to collaborate. We work a lot with the kitchen to develop ingredients that we wouldn’t know how to make, like foam.
Does working at a restaurant with such an innovative food menu push you to create crazier drinks?
I definitely want the drinks [at Ssäm] to be at the same level, but at the same time you’re in a restaurant and you want to make sure the food is the focal point, and the drinks are there to offset the experience. It’s also challenging to create food-friendly cocktails.
What are you excited about on the cocktail menu these days?
We’re on a late-summer kick, so we’ve got a blueberry-shiso drink, a raspberry-ginger-and-rye sour, and an adaptation of a classic Singapore Sling on the menu. And we’re going to be doing fall drinks in a couple weeks, which are going to be pretty bonkers.
What’s your favorite food-and-cocktail pairing on the menu at the moment?
I would say that one of my favorite dishes at Ssäm is the spicy pork sausage and rice cakes — it’s one of our most famous dishes — so I tend to have it with something tall to wash down the spiciness. Don [Lee] put together a really awesome Dark ‘n’ Stormy with fresh ginger syrup that we make. It’s super-refreshing.
How did you get started behind the bar?
I came back from living in Japan and was unemployed. I was looking for a job anywhere, considering going to law school. I was college friends with Don Lee and on a whim said, “Hey, Don, are you guys hiring?” And he said yes. I trained for a while with him and John Deragon, then Jim stepped in and taught me a lot. I realized that working in an office is so not for me. I quit my office job and it’s been a progression ever since.
So, do you still think you’ll go to law school?
Oh, God, no!
So many cocktail bars in the city are Prohibition era-themed. Are you over that style of bar?
Personally, I’m over it. It was a good way to establish the cocktail scene. It helped to find a tie to the past to give it a feeling of being legitimate and not just a bunch of drunk people throwing drinks together. We saw that it’s a tradition and involves scholarship and all that. But at this point, it’s already established as a real, truly American thing, which is cool. So, now what? We know we don’t have to dress like Orson Welles to make a good daiquiri. … I do wear suspenders, though. Suspenders are a key element when I’m behind the bar. So, what now, then? What will be the next big thing?
With all trends, there’s a certain end point to them. And then from there, you can sort of pick and choose, and it’s more about curating your ideas rather than being part of a trend. There’s no genre anymore — it’s more of a mishmash. And I think that’s really cool.
Where do you like to hang out when you’re not at your own bars?
That’s a tough one. I don’t go out much — I live out so I’d rather just be in — so it sounds dorky, but I think my favorite bar in the city is PDT and my favorite restaurant is Ssäm Bar, so it’s pretty ideal that I get to work there.
Favorite hangover cure?
I do a lot of yoga so I don’t get hungover. I do yoga at the Bikram studio on Allen Street. I love that place. I don’t think I’d be able to bartend without it. It’s so healing — I recommend it for anyone working in service.
Eggs. And vitamin B pills. I’ve read that alcohol metabolism depletes the body’s vitamin B reserves, which are essential for nerve function … why you sometimes feel shaky in Hangoverland.
Do you bartend much at home?
I have a fun home bar where I like to have mini focus groups to see what people like. One of my favorite things to make is a Johnny’s Margarita, which is just blanco tequila, lime, and agave, with absinthe over top. That was one of my first drinks I put on the summer menu at Ssäm. We named it for one of the managers, Johnny. It’s quite popular and very tasty. It’s very simple, but not dumbed down, which is what I try to do at Ssäm: Make things that are simple and drinkable, but still complex.
What’s your favorite music to drink to?
I have a playlist at PDT that has a lot of ’90s R&B and rap, like early Destiny’s Child and Snoop Dogg, and it’s by far the best thing to listen to at PDT.
Do you have a favorite movie or TV bartender?
Guinan, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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