As a lifelong bibliophile, I’m almost hesitant to admit that I now do all my reading via ebooks on my iPad or, even worse, my iPhone. I often joke that, though I’m an author myself, I would never dare purchase my books in paperback form as a consumer. Yet, there remains one domain, one genre, where I like to own physical copies and where I still purchase those archaic stacks of bound paper: the wonderful world of cocktail books.
From David Wondrich’s acclaimed tomes Imbibe! and Punch, to Jim Meehan’s already-essential PDT Cocktail Book, to Brad Thomas Parson’s uber-focused Bitters, cocktail books are one place in the publishing world where design and beauty seem to matter more than simply getting text and knowledge to a consumer as quickly and cheaply as possible (cookbooks, too, I guess—but who needs to eat?). David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald, and Alex Day’s Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails gives us maybe the most sexy cocktail book yet.
When I first visited Death & Co’s Amazon pre-order page a few weeks back, I balked at the $40 list price (a “mere” $18.99 on Kindle), but now that I’ve held the thing in my hands, I’d argue that you do get your money’s worth. This thing is nearly as heavy as the O.E.D., with a haunting black cloth/silver-leaf-engraved cover redolent of the world-famous New York bar that brings this work into the world. It’s packed—that’s the book, not the bar—with color photographs by William Hereford and intricate sketches by Tim Tomkinson, and it’s big enough (9.8″ x 9.5″ x 1.2″) to proudly display on your coffee table. Wouldn’t you prefer nosy visitors to thumb through a dozen elevated daiquiris recipes than a big book on pop art you’ve long been pretending to care about?
Death & Co has most of the staples of the modern cocktail book, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—though I continue to wonder why almost all recent cocktail tomes devote at least a few chapters to mixology 101. In this book’s case, there are sections on recommended bottles for each notable spirit, explanations on how to use specific bartending tools, and instructions for how to make garnishes and sweeteners. For the most part, well-trodden ground I thought was covered as much as it ever possibly needed to be covered in The PDT Book. That said, I did enjoy Death & Co’s small section on ice shapes, especially learning more about how to succeed even if all you have around the house is “shitty ice.”
Still, the section that differentiate this book from its forebears are where it really shines. Firstly, the book doesn’t just provide a slew of recipes; it actually shows at-home dilettantes like me how to make and create their own cocktails based on Death & Co methodology and the amassed knowledge of the entire Death & Co family. This book will teach you how to taste and evaluate your own spirits, how to “build” a drink, and, ultimately, the bar’s four strategies for creating your own cocktails—something I’ve never seen in a book before, certainly not in such clarity and depth.
Even with three listed authors, this book is a true group effort—more like an encyclopedia or compendium—which is not a surprise for a bar that has has long been slavishly devoted to a sense of “our.” In the book’s introduction, owner Kaplan talks about not wanting to ever get full credit for the bar nor its drinks, instead preferring that bartenders receive the acclaim (“You will stand behind your cocktails and take the credit they earn. This is not my bar; this is our bar.”).
Likewise, the bar has long promoted an ethos of being welcoming to guests, always wanting its doormen to be warm (even as guests had to endure hour-long waits to get into the hot spot), and its bartenders to never be the sort of pretentious prima donnas who give mixology a bad name.
The book’s treatment of its readers is no different, as we’re ushered behind the scenes for a sneak-peek at life behind the bar—and life before the bar has even opened for the day. Chapter one offers a timeline of what it takes to open and run Death & Co every night (I pity the general manager and his…17.5 hour day?!), slang industry terms you might have never noticed barmen tossing around (“scumbag”), and, most intriguingly, how the bartenders get together one Monday morning every season to overhaul the entire cocktail menu during a massive event called “the tasting.”
Further saluting its customers, each chapter devotes a page to beloved “regulars,” giving them a Wall Street Journal-esque hedcut, and allowing each to tell his or her story of falling in love with the bar and the one particular drink that sealed the deal. Every drinker in an East Village-located, $15-a-cocktail, speakeasy-style bar may look similar to you (“Damn, hipsters!”), but rest assured, these regulars include a wide gamut of New Yorkers, young and old, from financial types to a professional cellist to a clergyman, Father Bill Dailey, who discusses leaving church every Sunday night and walking immediately downtown to the bar for his favorite Ti Punch.
That rhum agricole-based drink is just one of what must be 500 original recipes included in the final 130 pages of the book—battle-tested cocktails created by not just the book’s authors, but many of their noted co-workers of past and present (Phil Ward, Joaquín Simó, and Death & Co’s current head bartender, Jillian Vose, to name a few). These are the cocktails like the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned and the Apertivo Julep that made Death & Co famous and came to define New York’s modern cocktail scene over the past decade. I’ll be studying them and trying them out on my wife for a good long while (better start making that chamomile-infused rye ASAP).
Does the world need more of these gorgeous, lavish, pricey cocktail books? I can’t believe I’m saying it, but clearly, yes, it does. Death & Co is not just a worthy, unique addition to the canon; to my mind, it immediately becomes one of the best cocktail books of all time, and surely deserves placement in your house or bar or wherever you display those pretty totems that make you seem a lot cooler than you truly are.