Baby-faced barkeep Alex Day first got behind the bar, as most people do, to make some extra cash. A flair for mixology and astute business sense sent him shooting up the ranks of high-profile bartenders so that, at the tender age of 26, he already has an enviable following among cocktail geeks around town. Day has made a name for himself at the cocktail den Death & Company, where he’s known for sultry, strong drinks, a penchant for sherry, and an easy rapport with punters. But you won’t be seeing him there much longer. The drinks slinger is leaving New York for Los Angeles, where he has plans to open a place with Death & Co. owner David Kaplan. Tonight will be his last night behind the bar.
Are you done packing?
No. I wish it were as simple as just getting on a plane and going to L.A., but it’s much more complicated than that.
What will you do in Los Angeles?
My business partner, David Kaplan, and I have plans to open a place there… but that’s all we’re saying for now.
What’s the most important lesson you learned from your time at Death & Co.?
I think the most important lesson I learned is professionalism. The level of professionalism with my coworkers has been an eye-opening experience and has really revealed the restaurant industry to me as something that I deeply love and want to pursue at all levels for the rest of my life.
What do you think is the main difference between the cocktail scene here and the one in L.A.?
I think the main difference is that they’re completely different markets, to put it blankly. I’ve see a lot of people — without naming names — who have gone out there and done, essentially, New York-style (beverage) programs, and thought that could be applicable to Los Angeles. It’s a completely different market. And it’s not to say that they’re at a different level of drinking. I think the enthusiasm is there, the culinary interest is there. The market may not have developed that far, but let’s keep in mind that this is New York City. Most of us don’t drive, we live close together, we don’t have to think about having one more drink.
Will that be the most challenging part of working out there, the fact that everyone drives?
We have a responsibility, as bar or restaurant operators, to take into account that there is geography between the patron sitting at the bar and them getting home. There should be creative ways in which we can serve a customer fully and give them our creative vision for what liquid can be in a glass, but also with a little thought.
What’s the most interesting part of the scene there?
On a professional level, the enthusiasm of the people I know there — Marcos Tello, Eric Alperin (both of The Varnish). I’ve spent the last six years here working on developing my skills with people who have all essentially come from the same place. You’ve either come from the Audrey/Dale (Saunders of Pegu Club/DeGroff, formerly of Rainbow Room) camp, or you’ve come from the Sasha (Petraske) camp, and I’m lucky to have received training from both camps. But the folks out there have really done it all themselves and I can’t wait to be around that. How did you get into bartending?
I moved to New York to finish up college at NYU and this city, as you may know, is a very expensive place to be a student. So, I got a job barbacking and, not too long after The Back Room opened on the Lower East Side, I took over the bar management of it — still as a 22-year-old kid. I didn’t have a whole lot of experience, but I worked really hard and I loved it. I finished up college and was thinking very sternly about going to grad school for history, but then I took a look at what I was doing and realized that it really did make me happy. At that point, there was this place opening up around the corner from me. It was called Death & Company. I went there and Joaquin Simo made me my first Aviation cocktail. I fell in love with it and I vowed that day that I would work there. I convinced Dave Kaplan to visit me and I think maybe I got him drunk and he offered me a job.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Speaking of history, do you think your study of it influenced your interest in classic cocktails?
I think so. [We talk about] the revival of the classic cocktail, the new golden age, blah blah blah. But what it all comes down to is drawing some legitimacy from the past and saying, ‘Hey, we are bartenders and we deserve to be respected because we put a lot of ourselves into this. And we think we’re very good at it.’ I love history. And so it wasn’t really much of a stretch for me to go from finishing up my thesis at school — on Russian organized crime, randomly enough — to falling in love with this stuff.
What has been the worst trend in bars that you’ve seen over the years?
What I’m really wanting to push forward in American drinking culture is the idea of not necessarily hearkening back to a certain age. Not to speak badly about any places around town — like I say, we draw legitimacy from the past — but the Sasha Petraskes, the Audreys, the Dales, the people who have proselytized the word of the cocktail for so long… we’re at a place where I don’t think we need to do that anymore. The cocktail is back. People are drinking more intelligently, bartenders are caring more, restaurants are thinking about their beverage programs in a serious way. But do I really need to wear suspenders and a bow tie? I don’t think so. We’re at a point where we can do what we do with a different aesthetic.
What do you think will be the next big thing in drinks?
I am probably the biggest fan of sherry in the world and it’s certainly had a big resurgence within the cocktail community, but I would like to see interesting fortified wines beyond vermouth becoming big again. Taking the idea of Italian amaro and expanding it. There are so many products in these regional markets in Europe that will be a really big craze soon.
Do you think you might ever come back to New York?
I would never rule it out. New York will always be here. But my family’s from the West Coast; it’s where I grew up. And I’m ready for a change in my life.