I still remember the first time John McCarthy made me a drink. I was meeting my then-boss, now-friend, and go-to cocktail resource, Carey Jones, at a lounge where her newish boyfriend was bartending. She’d been talking up their drinks for a couple of weeks at that point, so I was hovering somewhere between doubtful (everyone thinks their new boyfriend is amazing) and really excited (Carey definitely knows what she’s talking about!). I walked in expecting a well-curated menu of classic drinks alongside some more creative house concoctions, but what I found was literally no menu at all.
Instead, a chalkboard next to the bar listed a variety of ingredient and flavor prompts: words like citrusy, ginger, smoky, pineapple, herbal, bright, fruity, spicy, and bubbly. From behind the bar, John encouraged me to pick two or three terms from the list, and to specify whether I was more in the mood for a brown spirit or a clear one. A brief exchange and five minutes of patient skepticism later, I was sitting before the customized cocktail of my dreams. My only regret was that I didn’t have a recipe to take home with me.
A lot’s changed since that day. Carey and John are married, they’ve moved to the West Coast, and they regularly collaborate on projects, like their cocktail column for Food & Wine. But what’s most important to me, and what should be most important to you, is that I finally have that recipe—and you can, too. Carey and John’s new book, Be Your Own Bartender: A Surefire Guide to Finding (and Making) Your Perfect Cocktail, makes an ingredient- and mood-driven custom cocktail experience something any of us can reproduce in the comfort of our own homes.
In their book, Carey and John set out to empower their readers to feel confident mixing drinks. That meant writing about basic cocktail-making tools and techniques, as well as crafting 170 recipes. The only problem with all those options? “It means that there’s a drink for everyone—but it also means that trying to find that drink could be a chore. I personally don’t want to page through 170 recipes before deciding what to make, and I’m the ‘expert’!” Carey told me. “We also think that people don’t know, always, what they’re in the mood for. But! You almost always have an opinion on A versus B. I can tell you that, right at this moment, I’d prefer an herbal drink to a floral one. I’d prefer whiskey to tequila. I’d prefer something lighter to something hit-me-over-the-head boozy.”
Most cocktail books address this issue with a thorough table of contents, often organized by spirit, season, or perhaps occasion. But Be Your Own Bartender takes a novel approach by using interactive, easy-to-navigate flowcharts to guide readers to the right recipe. Inspired by the types of questions they’ve fielded both personally and professionally over the years, Carey and John have managed to make the process of selecting a drink fun instead of overwhelming.
We asked the duo to take Serious Eats on a custom cocktail ride for the holidays. The five resulting drinks run the gamut, from a light, citrusy cocktail of Lillet and sparkling wine spiked with rosemary honey, to a dark and spicy mix of ginger beer and bourbon that gets a hint of sweetness from hard cider. Just scroll along and click on the drink that speaks to you. No matter which branch of the chart you follow, one thing’s certain: You’ll be sipping your way through the holidays in confident, satisfied, being-your-own-bartender style.
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