These days, it takes more than a sexy unmarked door and an old-timey drink list to woo the cocktail community. No one knows that better than Death & Co. owners David Kaplan and Alex Day who, somewhat ironically, built their reputation with a particularly sexy unmarked door and elaborate cocktail list at the now legendary East Village bar.
Not ones to rest on their laurels, these insatiable scenemakers have parlayed their success with Death & Co. into a multi-faceted consulting company, Proprietors LLC, through which they’ve advised on and overseen ground-up projects in New York, Los Angeles, Jackson Hole, and Mumbai. They’ve just launch lifestyle brand Gin & Luck (whose first offering is a rucksack for bartenders), and they’re currently working on a new LES cocktail lair, as well as another L.A. outpost scheduled to open in spring of 2013.
We recently slid into a Death & Co. booth to talk about the evolution of drinking culture, the allure of centrifuges, and the essential elements of a great night out.
When you opened in 2006, did you think that Death & Co. would be the beginning of a cocktail empire?
David Kaplan: I had no expectations when we first opened. I just wanted to create an enveloping place where you could could go and sit all night. There’s a special history here because we had to fight for our survival for a number of years.
Alex Day: Death & Co. is about comfort. It’s not just an aesthetic thing. It’s a feeling in the room—it’s dark, the music isn’t crazy loud, everyone who works here is hospitable and cares about your experience.
It’s not just about great cocktails—it’s about a great night out. New York is a little bit behind L.A. in that sense.
How has Death & Co. informed your other ventures?
AD: We certainly don’t export one particular thing. It’s not our intention to open up a bunch of Death & Co.’s around the world, but there is an ethos that exists here, a family mentality. You don’t create that with a checklist; you create that with time and energy and caring about the people who work not for you, but with you.
DK: Nowadays, almost anyone can open up a place and just have a good cocktail program, but there needs to be more to have a truly great establishment. A bar, first and foremost, has to have a strong identity. Lately, good bars seem to be experience-based instead of programmatic. A cocktail isn’t an experience—it’s an offering, it’s a programming element. Death & Co. is an experience. But if you want a dance-y nightclub experience, should that preclude you from having a good cocktail? We’re at that tipping point where we expect good offerings no matter what type of experience we want.
Let’s talk New York versus L.A. Do these markets demand different experiences?
DK: There are more exceptional places to drink in New York, but the few places that are truly exceptional in L.A. are thinking about entertainment. It’s not just about great cocktails—it’s about a great night out. New York is a little bit behind L.A. in that sense. At the Spare Room in the Roosevelt [Hotel], there’s bowling, there’s games, there’s a DJ, there’s a great cocktail program. It’s sort of a gaming-lounge-kind-of-cocktail place that’s sort of dance-y. That’s pretty nebulous, but it has a strong identity. Going forward, the thread throughout our places will be great cocktails, great service, and great sense of community. The place that we’re about to start build-out on in L.A. has cocktails, an entertainment aspect, and more energy than anything we’ve done before. So it’s a bit of a departure, but it’s a continuation of the same ethos that we carry through everything. We’re also opening a small, focused cocktail bar on the LES sometime this fall. This is something that’s very close to our heart, very fun and familiar.
A lot of bars are experimenting with molecular mixology. Do you think you’ll ever go that route?
AD: I’m interested in how technology can enhance the classic cocktail experience. I just bought a centrifuge and we’re starting to clarify juice. We’re looking into carbonation and how CO2 dissolves into a drink. It’s hard to carbonate juice that has solids in it, so if you can clarify it, then you have a better result in the end.
DK: There are plenty of people like David Arnold [of Booker & Dax] and Tony Conigliaro [of London’s 69 Colebrooke Row] who are doing a lot of groundbreaking work in that field; we’ve just begun to scratch the surface. And these drinks aren’t necessarily better at all. They’re just different and fun. There’s nothing better than a Sazerac, or an Old-Fashioned, or a perfect martini or a daiquiri. Those drinks are perfect. You’re not going to get better than that. So really it’s just about different. Everyone’s supposed to have fun in this process, and if that entails playing with a Rotavap, then why not?