Cocktail bars are all about transparency now. No matter whether they are talking about their practices, their sustainability or even the clarified milk punch they have just mastered. But back on New Year’s Eve 2006/07, when a large wooden door opened at 433 East 6th Street in New York that was certainly not the case.
That door led to Death & Co., a bar that not only added fuel to the modern cocktail revival but has also influenced a generation bartenders and drinkers alike. There are so many factors that you could point to so as to explain that influence; the cocktails they created, the powerhouse of star bartenders, even down to the design sensibility of the bar itself.
Co-founder, David Kaplan, believes that they all derived from one ethos and that is the transparency he has always shown at each point of the entrepreneurial journey, no matter whether you were staff, media, guest or investor.
Fourteen years on, the New York bar now has two sisters, one in Denver and the other on Los Angles, as well as two books, Death & Co (2014) and Cocktail Codex (2018) in the family. So what do you do a decade and a half in, with one of the most iconic bar groups in the world? Well, for the moment you go and visit Australia.
The pair presented both industry and consumer events In Perth, Sydney and Melbourne to give locals a little taste of the Death & Co. Kaplan discussed the broader, big picture aspects of the business, while Day looked at the more granular bartender takeaways.
While one of the goals of Death & Co is to always remain open to the idea of expanding their business wherever it may make sense, Australia is not on their bar to-do list quite yet.
“Almost every trip we go on is a bit of a scouting mission,” he explains. “We don’t have any plans to open up in Australia, but we have a lot of friends who live out here. There’s a phenomenal bar scene out here and we’ve been really excited to come and check it out.
“So we’re certainly out here with open eyes and, have been enjoying it so far. I mean the culture here is phenomenal. I think it’s right on par with the best bars, and the best food and beverage scenes we’ve seen anywhere in the world.
While they may not open a bar on Australia’s shores any time soon, the company are looking to expand their empire stateside this year with another sister bar in the city of Chicago. “I was born in Chicago,” Kaplan explains, “and most of my family still lives in Chicago, so it’s always felt like kind of a second home to me.
“We’re working through the liquor licensing process right now, and hopefully we’ll get approvals for the space that we’re looking at. Of course, it’s always a little tentative in the beginning, but in the next three months we’re working on laying the path to open up this year, which will be amazing if we’re able to do it.”
The brand also has a third book on the way. According to Kaplan, the first chapter has been written and handed in but writing books, like opening bars, is a long process.
The new book, which is expected to be released late next year will represent the changes that have occurred in the business by not only show the spirit of the New York venue but also what the venues in Denver and Los Angeles have added to the mix.
“I feel like there’s so much more to be told, and we’re excited to share those stories, and to not just update what the first book is, but to really add a second tome with something that compliments Death & Co, and Cocktail Codex.”
“Those books really has resonated with so many people. We’ve sold I think almost 200,000 copies now or something like that, and we see the book pop up all around the world. Even last night here in Sydney, we had at least 10 or 15 people in a room of 60, come up and say, “man, this book changed my life”. It’s a crazy thing to hear.”
Kaplan points out that the same transparency that has made the books so popular, has also been the key to the success of the bars.
While it may not seem revolutionary now, Death & Co. were one of the first bars to not only be open about their operation with their bartenders but also allowed those on the front lines to be part of the decision processes, including what went on the menu.
“We’ve always believed that if we can become a great company, then we’ll attract the best people”, he said. “And if those people are engaged and having fun, then that creates the best hospitality environment.
It will foster a creative environment where people will push each other to make things that they’re incredibly proud of, whether it’s coming out of the kitchen or going across the bar.”
Kaplan points out that the commonly known, yet dirty little secret of the bar was that while he had worked in hospitality, he had never actually worked as a bartender. “I really built this bar from kind of the customer’s perspective.
“I think that honestly has been one of our keys to success in that we really created this egalitarian sort of a place where everyone has pushed and driven the creative. I’m really just there to facilitate, help encourage, and bring our teams the tools that they’ve needed.
“I think that has set the tone for a lot of our values, and we’ve sort of carried that on that transparency, that sort of a communal nature, where everyone gets credit for what they do.”
So what is the Death & Co experience? Well, Kaplan states that really, each of the bars is different. Although the same thread of hospitality runs through each venue, each has been able to develop their own style.
“There’s the same fanatical attention to detail within our cocktails, and also that same kind of creative push,” he said, “but there are between 30 and 40 drinks at each of the different locations that are unique to each place.
What Death & Co really is solidified both for Kaplan and his staff when the company went through the process of crowdfunding in 2018. As well as allowing the brand to consolidate all of the various aspects of their business under one umbrella, Kaplan believes the process also forced them to really believe in their story, and be confident in every part of the plan of what they were looking to do.
“I guess one of the things that really appealed to me most is that at the time we were already open book, we were transparent, we were really pushing our internal culture, and crowdfunding was an extension of that. With this form of revenue-raising you literally put all of your financials online, you put your deck online, and it’s all out there for the world to scrutinize.”
At the time, the decision to raise funds through crowdfunding was an industry first in the US and seen by many as perhaps more of a novelty than a plan but the process did exactly what Kaplan had hoped. Not only did they raise US$2,115,574.92 on SeedInvest but they turned cocktail fans into investors.
“I send out monthly newsletters to our investors,” Kaplan explains. “We see them in the bars all the time, and they feel like they are very much a part of this culture. It’s the same thing we wanted to do with the books, we wanted to do with our guests.
“With the books, I wanted something where you open the cover and it feels like you’re opening the door to this world. That you’re part of it, and you’re welcomed into it. We wanted to extend that to our investors, and I think crowdfunding has allowed us to do that, which has been really exciting.”
And opening a door to that world has been very much what the pair have done since they have been in Sydney. While the seminars were intended to show the transparency of Death & Co to bartenders, which they did, it seems that those same bartenders have shown transparency in their service, right back.
“The hospitality been phenomenal and the service has been amazing,” said Kaplan of his time in the city. “Everyone keeps saying that the service in Sydney isn’t great in part because tipping here is not part of the culture, but the service has been crazy good.”