Perhaps the greatest bar in the world offers up stories, lessons, and extraordinary drinks made for everyone from expert to aspirant.
Death & Co. started with a simple vision: Create a quiet bar that looked like it had and would continue to stand the test of time; while giving its bartenders everything they needed to create the best drinks they could. Now one of, if not the most famous bars in the world applies those lessons to the creation of their own cookbook and memoir: Death & Co. Modern Classic Cocktails.
Clad in black cloth and adorned in silver with the bar’s name and logo the book is a marvel of design that mimics the characteristics of its namesake bar. The heavy stock is sturdy, weighty, and of a size more suited to an ancient tome than to a cocktail recipe guide. It’s befitting of what’s held within.
Death & Co.’s book isn’t just a list of recipes. It’s history. It’s the beginning of a legend. It’s textbook and memoir and love letters and inspiration. While the second half of the book does cover the hundreds of unique recipes that make Death & Co. an incredible bar, the first half is a treasure of stories from bar regulars, owner David Kaplan, several generations of head bartenders from Phil Ward to Alex Day, and several well-known bartenders who’ve taken a turn behind the stick.
The stories and small asides and footnotes that comment on the recipes or the run of an average day at the bar flesh out an already informative work and turn it into a fascinating read, full of fascinating drinks.
Which means, at some point,we should start drinking.
Oaxaca Old Fashioned
Far and away the most ordered and imitated cocktail on the Death & Co. menu, then head bartender Phil Ward created the tequila based version of an old fashioned with a split base of mezcal, becoming one of the first to find a popular home for the, at the time, newly popular spirit. As owner David Kaplan says, the drink “would go on to symbolize our approach to cocktails: a simple recipe grounded in the classics, but with a level of innovation that comes from a deep understanding of the ingredients at play.”
The split base cocktail not just doubles but triples down on the agave flavor, adding in agave nectar along with the tequila and mezcal. A few dashes of angostura bitters and a flamed citrus twist garnish (which was alternatively a chore and a delight to learn for a novice like me) perfect a twist on an old classic.
The Death & Co. manual has three different types of Manhattan. The standard, the citrusy dry manhattan transfer, and the tea-infused black market manhattan. Of those we went with the standard, which uses traditional angostura bitters. It was strong, sweet, and had a great kick.
While we’ve been been making our own ingredients where we can ever since the Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual, Death & Co. recommend Luxardo Marasche brandied cherries as a garnish, which was a delicious twist that added the perfect balance of fruity sweetness rather than sugary to an absolute classic. Though we do plan on brandying our own cherries in the near future for the experience.
The Last Word has a lot going on. Strong gin, the sharp citrus of freshly squeezed lime juice, maraschino liqueur, and green chartreuse together in one glass sounds like the final drink should come up muddled by the strong competing flavors. Somehow though they all play nice together, creating a sharp and citrusy concoction full of fruit with the telltale tastes of juniper and an herbal blend from the gin and chartreuse besides.
After the distinctive flavors of the Oaxaca, and the strength of the Manhattan, the Last Word is refreshing and easy to drink but with its own kick and unique set of flavors that make it stand apart. In short, this easy to make cocktail accomplishes everything in the Death & Co. mission statement. It’s simple. It’s delicious. It’s bold.
The bar has always had a sense of wonder around it. Cocktails have hundreds of years worth of history and myth and mystique around them. There’s no other kind of establishment in the world that does what a bar does. To capture that, even for the span of a night, is a treasure. Death & Co. does that.
It has latched onto and vaulted itself into the lore of a world of strange alchemy. I’m originally a bookseller by trade. We delight in the design of good things, the smells and touch and memory of the things we sell, recommend, agonize over. We know when we’re holding something special. This book is something special. This book is a treasure.
By combing this book’s pages, an astute reader will learn from the ground up the history and use of a dozen types of spirits both common and otherwise. They’ll find a hundred different tools of the trade and their variations from glassware to shakers to ice shaping tools to strainers, and not just the how but the why of each and every one.
Death & Co. Modern Classic Cocktails is a primer, a textbook, and a loving crafted ode to the art of the drink and dedicated men and women who innovate every night. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is the wear already beginning to show, and the assured frequency with which it will be used in the future.