I first visited Death & Co, I think, in January 2008. It might have been late 2007, but more likely was in 2008. While the date of my visit has been forgotten over the years, the experience has not. It was my first visit to a modern, speakeasy-style craft cocktail bar. More importantly, it changed my life.
I know the exact moment and the cocktail that I was drinking when I was awakened to the marvel of cocktails made with skill and quality ingredients. I was drinking The Conference – an Old Fashioned variation made with four base spirits – bourbon, rye, cognac and calvados. No liquor, no beer, no wine, nor cocktail had ever passed my lips that tasted so good. The Conference on that first night at Death & Co didn’t merely make me fall in love with that drink – though I did. It didn’t merely make me fall in love with the bar in which it was made – though I did. No, the first time I drank The Conference at Death & Co, I fell head over heels in love with what craft cocktails could be.
My first visit to Death & Co was with a couple of close friends. We sampled many drinks on the menu. As much as I was blown away by The Conference, I also recall drinking other outstanding original creations then – St. Columb’s Rill, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, Carroll Gardens. My memory might blur a bit here, as I went back to Death & Co many, many times in close succession in the winter months of 2008. But the experience was transformative.
Prior to finding Death & Co, I’d been almost exclusively been a beer and a shot at a dive bar guy. In point of fact, my most common NYC haunts were all in the East Village. Cherry Tavern, a few doors down from Death & Co, was probably my most frequent stop from 2005 on (if you’ve never been, it has the best punk rock jukebox and the best cheap drink special in the E.Vill.). I moved to DC in 2007 and while there, discovered good beer – craft microbrews and Belgian imports, mostly. At the (now closed) Brickskeller, I learned that paying more for a drink can actually mean getting far superior quality. No doubt this made me willing to visit a cocktail bar with drinks priced about three times more than the Tecate and a shot of rail tequila special next door at Cherry Tavern.
I started trying to bring as many of my friends as possible to experience Death & Co. It was critical that I introduce my friends to this new-to-me sort of bar. Some nights I’d bring friends for their first visit. Other times I’d go back with friends I’d already introduced.
Each visit felt the same. I learned early on that it was usually easier to get in if I went very close to opening and on week nights. I’d get off of the subway and walk at an increasing pace towards Death & Co. The anticipation would build – would I get right in? Would there be a wait? Would there be anything new on the menu? How many plates of charcuterie could I reasonably eat? But really, the experience always started with the anticipation.
I moved to Alaska in the spring of 2008. Leaving New York meant leaving the sophistication, the creativity and the cocktailian genius of Death & Co. When I moved back to the Lower 48, back to DC this time, getting back to Death & Co was high on my priority list. I’m pretty sure I went the first weekend I could visit New York.
By this time I’d realized that I couldn’t live in a city like DC without finding the bars and bartenders who were doing what the masters at Death & Co were doing. This realization lead me to connecting to the fast-expanding DC craft bartending scene. The people I met when I made this choice – now quite well known bartenders like Derek Brown, Gina Chersevani, Adam Bernbach, Dan Searing and Owen Thomson – and the bars they worked at or would soon open are quite simply one of the biggest factors in me loving living in Washington DC.
One thing I learned in my early visits to Death & Co was that while skill needed to be learned, cocktail recipes were universal. If you have the same ingredients and know the proportions, you can make the same drink at Death & Co in your own home. That’s exactly what I started to do.
My new, Death & Co induced affection for craft cocktails also inspired me to start this cocktail blog.
Quite simply, it’s hard for me to imagine what the last seven years of my life would look like had I never visited Death & Co.
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Taking a step back, Death & Co was not the first modern craft cocktail bar. It was not the first bar that styled itself like a proto-speakeasy, nor was it the first to elevate Pre-Prohibition cocktails and adapt them with contemporary ingredients. Much of the early bar staff had established themselves at groundbreaking bars like Flatiron Lounge and Pegu Club.
But I do think Death & Co elevated the craft cocktail movement in a way that’s hard to understate. To get a sense, though, you need to read “Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails,” a new book by David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald and Alex Day. The book is largely in the voice of Kaplan, the founder and co-owner of Death & Co. He ably tells the history of the bar from conception to realization to smash success. His writing is honest and compelling in a way only the best cocktail books are.
Many of the cocktail books of the 1800s didn’t merely list recipes for drinks, but included detailed instructions for how to run a bar. Instructions for mise-en-place, etiquette for dealing with customers, and recipes for making spirits from scratch provided readers with rich insights into how to properly run a reputable bar.
Kaplan, Fauchald & Day’s “Death & Co” book does this too, continuing a recent trend of focusing not just on drink making and recipes, but deep exposition on how successful bar proprietors run their successful bars. James Meehan’s “The PDT Cocktail Book” and Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s “The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique” must also be recognized for doing this with incredible clarity and openness. Three instances makes a trend and it seems clear that some of America’s top barmen want the rest of us to know how to be awesome, too.
One of my favorite features of this book was that space was given for “The Regulars” of the bar to write about their experience, how they relate to it, and the recipe for their favorite cocktail to order. It’s a classy move and one that reveals the personality of Death & Co in the pages of its cocktail book.
My other favorite part was the “Death & Co Family Daiquiri Album,” wherein alumni of the bar share their preferred recipe for one of the best and most available to interpretation cocktails. The Daiquiri is my go-to drink order when I want to get a sense of a bartender’s style and quality, their originality and their sense of balance. Seeing so many Death & Co luminaries’ Daiquiri recipes side by side is both awesome and makes me want to make all of them to see whose is my favorite.
As with any good cocktail book, “Death & Co” demystifies what for most appears to be a mythical undertaking. There’s a tick-tock of an average day at the bar. There’s a robust dictionary of terminology common to Death & Co and the bar business in general. There’s even a blurb on “Working With Shitty Ice” – something that 99% of home bartenders reading the book will find relevant to developing their techniques.
The book reveals much of the ethos of the bar and the bar staff that made it legendary. It’s consistently striking to read about how in an environment that could be described as one of the most precise and technical American cocktail bars, there seems to be little pretense. The transcript of a tasting session, wherein bartenders present new recipes for critique and workshopping, shows how the only thing that seems to matter is putting out the best drinks to their customers, not their staff’s egos.
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“Death & Co” contains over 500 recipes. Some are classic recipes that every cocktail aficionado should know (and few bars should ever look beyond when building their own menu). Many of the Death & Co original recipes include infusions and somewhat rare syrups, though there’s a detailed appendix covering these uncommon ingredients.
But the recipes are accessible, even if the ingredient lists are often long and sometimes complex. Doing a Savoy Stomp-style production of every recipe in this book would take nearly two years and probably get weird and inconvenient. That’s not how I’d recommend using this book. Instead, it’s an opportunity for people who have visited Death & Co and fallen in love with a cocktail (or ten) there to find out how to make it for themselves at home or (politely) ask their friendly neighborhood craft bartender to make it for them.
Death & Co bartenders have been responsible for a disproportionate number of modern creations that have already spread to other bars and restaurants around the world. This sort of migration is crucial for any cocktail to survive the bar of its creation and give it a shot at being around for decades or centuries to come. (Note that there is a reason many classic cocktails have been around for 100-200 years – it’s because they are really, really good and very hard to improve upon). Coming up with new classics is hard, but it’s happened at Death & Co. The Oaxaca Old Fashioned, by Phil Ward, can be found in bars around the country, served by many bartenders who have likely never heard of Phil, nor perhaps even Death & Co. I personally would be willing to bet that the aforementioned Conference, Carroll Gardens, or St. Columb’s Rill could survive the tests of time. Other Death & Co creations like Naked and Famous, Manhattan Transfer, and The Black Prince come to mind as ones I could see being made for decades to come.
Of course the publication of this book and these recipes mean that in fifty or one hundred or two hundred years, a young, intrepid bartender seeking something new for her craft cocktail patrons from the pages of history will find an almost-forgotten recipe from Death & Co. Here’s to hoping that this happens time and again in coming epochs.
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I don’t write here often any more. But I wanted to review “Death & Co” because, as should be clear to anyone who’s made it this far, that it’s a bar that I’ve adored for as long as I’ve been a patron. It’s not always the case that you can pinpoint a source of genuine enjoyment joy in one’s life, but Death & Co has been one for me. I recommend the bar. I recommend this book. I recommend the people who have made both so outstanding.