In 2006, David Kaplan came to New York with a dream of opening his own bar. The consummate host, Kaplan started playing bartender when he was 18, with a tiki-themed bar in his friend’s dirt-floor garage. Little did he know his little hobby would lead him to co-own one of the most highly acclaimed bars in the world.
Death & Co. (433 East 6th Street, 212-388-0882) opened in 2006 under Kaplan and partner Ravi DeRossi. Since then, it’s garnered a plethora of awards, including America’s Best Cocktail Bar and Best Cocktail Menu at the Tales of the Cocktail as well as the Village Voice‘s pick for Best Cocktails in Best of NYC 2013. The bar usually boasts multi-hour waits; however, Kaplan and partner Alex Day are inviting readers to experience the culture of the speakeasy with their newly released volume, Death & Co.: Modern Classic Cocktails.
While Kaplan started mixing drinks fresh out of high school, he stepped up his cocktail game in college. He didn’t know he’d go on to own a bar, but he made his first infusion in his junior year. Not a pot-smoker, but a growing enthusiast, Kaplan and one of his friends played with hydroponics. He used the cultivated crop to create the Green Dragon, a weed-infused vodka mixed with honey, cranberry juice, and Sprite. “It was actually pretty funny,” he says. “We had all this fancy white widow, and had nothing to do with it but give to friends. I read that I could infuse alcohol with pot, so we did that. It was the first infusion I did.”
It’s anecdotes like this that give readers insight into the makings of the world-class bar. Kaplan describes the ins and outs of opening the doors: the contract, build-out, design, brown-suede booths, gold-leaf chandeliers, layered wood ceilings. “I wanted an interior that felt enveloping,” says Kaplan in the book. “A safe haven from which you could forget the outside world.”
From the outset, Kaplan knew he wanted the drinks to be innovative. His goal was to find bartenders to fulfill his vision of “inventive cocktails with a wink and a nod to the classics.” When well-known mixologist Phil Ward walked into an open interview, Kaplan found his perfect match. Ward brought in another Pegu Club alum, Brian Miller. Joaquín Simó came next. Jessica Gonzalez was hired as a cocktail waitress — she later became the first female bartender on staff. Together, the team created a cocktail program that continues to garner international acclaim.
One of the first big hits to come out of the bar’s mixing vessels was Ward’s Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, which debuted in 2007. Playing around with a recipe for a tequila old-fashioned, Ward worked mezcal into the cocktail as a modifier — at the time, bartenders were struggling with ways to incorporate the aggressively flavored spirit into drinks. Variations are now found on menus across the world. “I think Phil Ward has a huge amount to do with the popularity of mezcal,” says Kaplan. “I think the world saw the mixing capabilities through the lens of the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned.”
While the bar itself is considered a sanctuary by its regulars and the creative geniuses who stir and shake the drinks, it’s faced its share of attacks, most notably from a pesky neighbor who sought to put it out of business. Kaplan delves into the difficulties he and his staff faced after his upstairs neighbor filed a series of formal complaints with the city. After numerous calls per week to the police, the State Liquor Authority launched a year-long investigation, resulting in fines, a week-long closure, and the revocation of Death & Co.’s liquor license. The staff dug their heels into the ground, banded together, and worked even harder to create better drinks, stronger service, and an even better bar. In the end, it all worked out. But Kaplan explains that he struggled to come to terms with the opposition at the time; he’s since learned to let it roll off his back (at least a bit). “A restaurateur friend said, ‘What do you expect? You have your employees, rent, liquor costs, and your crazy neighbor. We all have one,’ ” says Kaplan.
A year later, Day was added to the team’s roster — he was later made partner in Death & Co. as well as in the new consulting and bar-building company Proprietors LLC. The NYU grad initially got into bartending as a means to pay his exorbitant New York City rent, but didn’t immediately consider the creative opportunities the job presented. Then he walked into Death & Co. By the time he finished the Aviation Simó prepared him, he was inspired to follow a new path. “That first drink changed my life,” says Day.
He went back to the bar he was managing, the Back Room, and made his bartenders start juicing fresh ingredients. He poured himself into learning everything there is to know about cocktails, with the goal of scoring a gig at Death & Co. — and eventually, he did.
Four years ago, Day and Kaplan went bicoastal with the opening of Honeycut in Los Angeles, a collaboration with Cedd Moses and Eric Needleman. Together, along with partner Devon Tarby, Kaplan and Day have also opened two additional bars in New York, Nitecap and One Fifty One (in addition to numerous consulting projects). They currently have two more L.A. outposts in the works. Kaplan says that the upcoming projects are the most ambitious to date.
The partners signed the deal for the book just a year or so after the opening of Honeycut; it took about three years to get it released. Rather than create a tome on the history of cocktails or a simple collection of recipes, Kaplan and Day wanted the work to feel like an invitation into cocktail culture. “Nothing else felt like opening the door to a beautiful, sexy, candlelit cocktail bar so people could feel like they understood this world,” says Kaplan. “It’s a love letter to our industry.”
Part of the goal was to invite readers into Death & Co., whether they’ve been or have just dreamed of going. Sections of the book break down the staff’s schedule and lexicon (for example, a scumbag is “either a noun or a verb when referring to a drinks industry person who shows up and orders a drink as we’re attempting to close the bar, then hangs on for a few shots and barely tips”), while others tell the stories of the regulars, and their favorite cocktails, in their own voices. “They’re part of our story,” says Kaplan. “And they needed to be part of the book.”
Cocktail techniques, directions on how to stock a bar, and drink recipes make up the rest of the book.
1 1/2 ounces El Tesoro Reposado Tequila
1/2 ounce Del Maguey San Luis Del Rio Mezcal
1 teaspoon agave nectar
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Garnish: 1 orange twist
1. Stir all the ingredients over ice, then strain into a coupe.
2. To garnish, flame the orange twist over the drink, then drop it in.