At fifteen, the faux-alchemy of cocktails held a slightly different mystique for David Kaplan than it does for most at that age. Alcohol’s ability to intoxicate was eclipsed by its intrigue—each shelf containing messages in a bottle, holding secrets and history from far-away countries and skilled craftsmen.
Which of course doesn’t mean that young Kaplan didn’t experiment with plenty of combinations that would—and in fact do—make him cringe just to think about now. In his early 20’s, he would begin to move on from the basics in the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide to the writings of Imbibe! and Punch author David Wondrich. Finally, he would experience the heart of cocktail culture in person with a trip to Milk & Honey (formerly of New York City’s Upper East Side), where he remembers being let into a candle-lit world that smelled of fresh mint and citrus.
“You just felt like you knew something that no one else in the world did,” Kaplan says. “Like you were just part of this phenomenal little secret, and back then, it really was.”
With such a heart for the history and mystique of the cocktail, it’s not surprising that Kaplan would go on to co-found Death & Company—a throwback neo-speakeasy bar without the gimmicks.
Thankfully, knowledge of skilled cocktail craftsmanship—though still rare and cherished—is no longer a secret, and Death & Co’s influence has more than a bit to do with it.
When Death & Co opened on New Year’s Eve 2006/07, Kaplan and his business partner Alex Day had no grand visions of becoming an advocate for–, nor a particularly iconic example of– the elevation of cocktail culture in the U.S. After beginning with the simple goal of providing great wine, great food, and great cocktails, a bar-hopping “research” trip to London gave Kaplan the inspiration to do things a little differently—drawing from the influence of the metropolis’s lengthy cocktail menus, but with a crucial twist: whereas these sizeable tomes contained only a few original cocktails per section, Death & Co would make all of its cocktails in-house.
Since then, the 54-seat, hole-in-the-wall bar has become an open-sourced hub where the craft of the cocktail is studied, shared, elevated, and (of course) appreciated and consumed by the steady stream of customers who choose the bar’s intimate, dimly lit space as the spot for compelling conversation with good company. The end goal of this push to grow and share knowledge within the industry is to bring the cocktail culture up to the acumen and sophistication that wine and the culinary arts hold something of a monopoly on these days.
Origin: Phil Ward, 2008
2 oz. Beefeater London Dry gin
1 oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth
1⁄2 oz. Cointreau
3 Dashes Vieuz Pontarlier Absinthe
Method: Stir & strain into A/P coupe Garnish: Lemon Twist
“The goal for us is that if we collectively continue to be transparent about the growth of cocktail culture, people will see what we’re doing and they’ll push it further,” Kaplan says. “There will always be someone leap-frogging to go further, push harder, reinvent, to find new ways to do things, and I think that’s the only way we’ll see the quick evolution of this industry—of this culture—that we want to see.”
As something of an ode to this intention, in October 2014, Death & Co released its first book, Death & Co Modern Classic Cocktails, which has since been dubbed the most important and influential book to emerge from the contemporary craft cocktail movement to date. The book contains not only expertly crafted proprietary recipes, but also enough information to make it the most interesting textbook any aspiring bartender might ever read, with how-to’s and essays from some of the nation’s most respected bartenders.
By releasing this new cocktail bible, Kaplan has watched Death & Co evolve beyond its elegant East Village space into an idea that has a life of its own. “One of my favorite things now is that we’ll get huge fans of the book that have never been in, and to them, that book is Death and Co,” he says. Still, Kaplan thinks that cocktail books have barely scratched the surface of the level of precision achieved in cookbooks, referencing Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook. “I think they had, like, a team of NASA scientists working on that for 15 or 20 years—it’s insane!” he laughs. While he notes that Dave Arnold has been championing precision in craft cocktails, he says that having “one mad scientist out there truly innovating and applying his scientific mind” should only imply that the industry could go much further.
To keep craft cocktails on an upward trajectory, the guys at Death & Co have also formed Proprietors LLC, a consulting company to help its clients build elevated, cocktail-centric beverage programs. The team was also responsible for co-creating California’s first cocktail week in 2013.
Kaplan has learned a few things from his time working with influential names like Jillian Vose, Phil Ward, and Joaquín Simó about what it takes to be a world-class bartender, and his insights aren’t exactly what you’d expect. There’s no particular tool or style that Kaplan advocates for. Instead, efficiency, business savvy, and communication skills win the day. “Being a bartender these days is not just about creating great cocktails, and now the actual, physical tools are the least important,” he says. “Bartenders need to be constantly improving and educating themselves, and they need to stay quick and organized while multitasking. Being a bartender these days is really difficult—as it should be.”
Kaplan argues that smart bartending and high-caliber cocktails—unlike the kitsch of the beloved tiki bar or even the neo-speakeasy trend itself—will never ebb in popularity.
“I don’t think quality cocktails will ever die out,” he says. “I don’t think our taste buds are all of the sudden going to regress and crave bad sour mix. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Kaplan and Day have certainly been putting money on that claim, with two additions in New York City (Nitecap and OneFiftyOne) and one new location (Honeycut) in Los Angeles, where they plan to continue to spread their knowledge of the black magic of craft cocktails.