Food & Drink

Subjective Deliciousness Is Whatever You Want

So what actually makes a cocktail good?

John deBary is a cocktail and bar expert with over a decade of experience working in award-winning New York City bars and restaurants. He is also the co-founder and president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grantmaking, and impact investing. John is also the creator of Proteau, a line of non-alcoholic drinks. The following is an excerpt from his new book, Drink What You Want. Published by Clarkson Potter.

I have thought a lot about why some things taste good and others do not, and it’s hard to pin down the exact source of deliciousness in the world. Is there innate deliciousness in foods? Or is it all in our heads?* The answer is, as you might imagine, quite complex. Yes, there are substances in the world that humans inherently find delicious -- things that contain sugar, protein, and fat―because we need nutrients in order to survive, so we have a built-in tendency to want to consume things that contain them. That’s the objective, data-driven, fact-based truth. But deliciousness is not that simple. Our opinions, memories, associations, tastes -- the subjective -- add a layer on top of that. That’s deliciousness.

It’s when you satisfy both that you have a great drink.† A truly great cocktail is both objectively and subjectively delicious.

Objective deliciousness is analytical: How sweet is it? Is it too strong? Too bitter? When it comes to cocktails, objective deliciousness can easily be broken down and quantified. There are rules and regulations that have generally been accepted, practiced, and taught. And we’ll get to that in just a moment.

But subjective deliciousness is emotional: Do you like the drink? Does it make sense, given your mood? Do you like how it makes you feel? You can make the most perfectly crafted eggnog in the world, but if you drink it while you’re on a hot, sweaty beach, you’re probably going to have a bad time. I have served two people the exact same cocktail within the span of ten minutes and one of them has said it’s the best of their life and the other has sent it back.

Simply put, subjective deliciousness is people’s preferences -- their likes and dislikes. We can’t package it into neat categories the way we can objective deliciousness.* Not only are our preferences all unique, but they can also vary considerably in the same person under different circumstances. How many times have you been running around on a hot day and ice water was literally the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted in your entire life? Probably not so in the middle of a sloshy, freezing hailstorm when you forgot to wear that jacket with a hood. And how many times have you scarfed down an entire bag of gummi bears where the first few are a tasty delight, but you eat the last half of the bag only out of a sense of obligation and, well, you’re already crying, so why stop now? Depending on how you feel, a given drink can be either a lifesaver or a vile poison.

You can also like and dislike a drink based on an emotional reaction to a memory: “I love absinthe because it reminds me of my summer in Paris,” or “My asshole ex-boyfriend drank Scotch all the time and now I can’t smell it without gagging.”

You can also like and dislike a drink based on an emotional reaction to a memory: “I love absinthe because it reminds me of my summer in Paris,” or “My asshole ex-boyfriend drank Scotch all the time and now I can’t smell it without gagging.”

People who say they only think “rationally” or “logically” about cocktails (or anything, really) are lying. Emotion, feeling, mood, situation, whatever you want to call it, provides the context for our entire experience of the world -- and it is the most important element of deliciousness. Everyone is different, and even when a drink is made well, it fails when the person drinking it simply doesn’t like it. When it comes to subjective versus objective, subjective will always win.

Now, I can’t help you understand your emotions, no matter how many drunk DMs you send me. That’s a layer you’re going to have to interpret on your own time, for yourself -- or at least with a therapist. But I can help you understand what makes a cocktail objectively good.

* Like everything?
† Or a great anything. But for our purposes, a great drink.
* And even when dealing with objective deliciousness, each person is unique because genetics plays a huge role in how our senses function. But let’s not get into that in this book, k?

El Diablo from 'Drink What You Want' | Sarah Tanat-Jones

Here's a recipe from 'Drink What You Want':

El Diablo 

There are a ton of different ways to make an El Diablo. I’m sure there is a definitive version somewhere out there, but that’s an unimportant endeavor next to finding a recipe you actually like. To start, here’s a version that I love. Most people use ginger beer, but I think it’s 1000% better with sparkling wine. This drink is a bit bigger in volume than usual, which is why I recommend serving it with ice in an old fashioned or water glass. The ice helps soften the intensity from the ginger and provides additional dilution to balance the alcohol.

Makes 1 drink
1½ ounces reposado tequila
3/4 ounce Ginger Syrup (recipe follows)
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
3/4 ounce Lejay crème de cassis
2 ounces sparkling wine, such as Cava or Prosecco
Garnishes Lime wheel and candied ginger on a pick

In a shaker, combine the tequila, ginger syrup, lime juice, and crème de cassis. Add ice and shake for 15 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled old fashioned or water glass. Top with the sparkling wine and garnish with the lime wheel and candied ginger.

Ginger Syrup

Makes about 2 cups 
2 pounds fresh ginger, thoroughly scrubbed*
About 2 cups granulated sugar (depending on juice yield; see Note)

Using a juice extractor, juice the ginger. Pass the liquid through a gold coffee filter to remove all solids. You should have about 1 cup. Combine the ginger juice and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the syrup to cool for a few minutes. Place the pan in an ice bath and stir every few minutes until the mixture is below room temperature. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 6 months

* I prefer the more robust flavor of unpeeled ginger, but you can peel it if you think doing so is worth your time.

Reprinted with permission from Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails by John deBary, copyright© 2020. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Illustration copyright: Sarah Tanat-Jones© 2020

You can purchase Drink What You Want from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, or Powell's Books.

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