A newsletter for the industry pro (or aspiring pro).

Cocktails

Death & Co. Is Everywhere. Is That a Good Thing?

May 14, 2024

Story: Jordan Michelman

art: Punch

Cocktails

Death & Co. Is Everywhere. Is That a Good Thing?

May 14, 2024

Story: Jordan Michelman

art: Punch

How the bar world’s only bona fide chain walks a fine line between expansion and relevance.

I walked into the original Death & Co. on a recent Tuesday night, finding it packed. I’ve only ever been to this place while it’s full to the brim, although I’m sure it has its quieter moments, like any bar. Tonight I’m a table for one; they’re able to whisk me in right away, so long as I don’t mind being wedged between two parties at the corner of the bar. 

There, amid the twinkling candles, the bar’s low roof draped overhead, light bounces off the marble bar top, casting shadows upon pineapples and people, bottles and bartenders. It feels like it’s felt for almost two decades now. The bar opened in 2006, and I’ve been visiting regularly for the last 15 years.

Tonight I’m seated next to a kid, all of 23, and very much from out of town, poring with befuddlement over the bar’s multipage paper menu. Every now and then he softly asks a question of the bartender, straining his voice over the din with an English accent.

I listen in on him, and the party to the other side of me, and the roar of the booths behind us. The room’s abuzz. 

‘Every location is like a little vignette,’ Kaplan tells me, ‘a microexpression of each city.’

It’s hard to neatly summarize the towering, glowing aura that enveloped the identity around this place, but I will try: Death & Co. forms one of the major pillars of what’s been called the 21st-century cocktail renaissance. It’s a global phenomenon, the profoundly influential Manhattan wing of which centered around bars like PDT, Angel’s Share, Amor y Amargo and Milk & Honey, whose founder, Sasha Petraske, died in 2015. (All grand movements share a fallen leader.)

While Death & Co. enjoyed a decade worth of glowing notices and enviable book sales—both Modern Classic Cocktails (2014) and Cocktail Codex (2018) are considered contemporary classics—much of the press around the brand as of late has centered on its national expansion, the rollout of its canned cocktail line and the unionization efforts of the flagship Manhattan location. (That last story, in particular, has been covered by Dave Infante’s Substack, Fingers, as well as in the pages of this website.) 

It would have been hard to imagine, in the bar’s early days, that Death & Co. would someday become a particularly modern form of chain, with locations scattered across the country and a brisk online business wing, selling posters and glassware and death’s head cocktail mugs. The bar now has locations in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Denver, and, soon, Seattle. As it solidifies its status as the modern cocktail world’s first bona fide chain, it raises the question: Has expansion changed the character of Death & Co.? Has it managed to stay cool?

To answer either of those questions, it’s important to first understand the nature of Death & Co.’s expansion—the ways in which it has managed, with each new property, to retain essential elements of the original East Village location—“a darkened, quasi-speakeasy-ish cove of mixological art, simultaneously serious and fun,” as Robert Simonson, author of Modern Classic Cocktails (published in 2022, not to be confused with the Death & Co. book of the same name), describes it—while simultaneously allowing each new city to inform, to a degree, how the brand exists within its own particular context.

People in Denver and Washington, D.C., and Seattle and Los Angeles have a complicated set of feelings and critiques around the bar, which land as a two-choice combo of tempered excitement and muted resentment. They both do and don’t care about the NYC thing. They both are and aren’t excited to have these bars open in their regions. These are cities that already have established, sophisticated drinks scenes; places like Seattle and Denver and good heavens, Los Angeles, do not need a hoary old icon of Gen X drinkography to arrive from Manhattan to make them feel legit.

It turns out that the person who feels the strongest on this last point is David Kaplan, who is one of the founders of Death & Co. He opened the bar at age 24, the same age I was when I first visited, a few years later. Today, he is the CEO of Gin & Luck, a multitiered hospitality group that owns and operates all of the Death & Co. locations under its omnibus umbrella. “I think chasing cool is a fool’s errand,” he told me, “and dangerous. It’s like chasing a trend.”

Kaplan is 42 now, and speaks like he manages a multimillion dollar hospitality group—our conversation takes many turns around corporate structure and quarterly cadence and growth trends and the rest of it, none of which should ever be mistaken for remotely cool. But in its expansion, Death & Co. has managed a neat trick, something almost totally lost by the generational chains of yore: It has granted self-expression and opportunity to its new teams, city by city, and has created unique versions of its bars that aesthetically and culturally reflect their new homes. “Every location is like a little vignette,” Kaplan tells me, “a microexpression of each city. You can never capture it all in just one place. But you can romanticize it.”

Bar staff at each location build unique drinks alongside Death & Co. classics. These bars find their footing across months and years, until they become part of the fabric of their cities. Somehow the brand has managed to expand out of New York while not being an oppressively imperialistic New York–coded brand. In fact, expansion may have, in a roundabout way, saved Death & Co. from becoming a relic, and helped the brand exist in the contemporary moment in a way that its flagship location never could have alone. The success of the chainification of Death & Co. comes from breaking the copy-and-paste mold that defines most other sorts of chains. The bar caters to something more universal, to an aspirational version of the people who make their way inside, creating a daisy chain of ongoing patronage. 

As the Status and Culture author W. David Marx told me, “Brand value all comes down to one thing: Who is the average customer in your head when you imagine it? As long as brands can make you imagine aspirational people, they can remain beloved.”

This reality echoes back into the conversations I had with journalists and media folks around the country. I went looking for this idea, one that said, more or less, “How was such an epochal New York brand like Death & Co. greeted in your hometown?” But the truth is, that was absolutely the wrong question to ask. Queasily it has dawned on me that my understanding of Death & Co. as an NYC brand, and the very idea that Death & Co. was somehow exporting a form of “New York cool,” was in fact atrociously out of touch and dated. 

The truth of the matter is that now we’re all old. 

For today’s 25-year-old—about the age I was when I started drinking at these sorts of places—if it happened before 2018, it may as well have been on a goddamn newsreel, because anything prior to the cultural ascendency of Instagram and TikTok amounts to ancient history, and nobody even remotely cares. It is only old people who think of Death & Co. and Shake Shack and so forth as enterprising New York City success stories that went national and made it big; the rest of the world, the people who really matter, which is to say the young people, know these brands as omnipresent cultural spokes that have always been here and will always be here in urban life. It no longer matters in the least where they came from in the first place; the Boomers were obsessed with the SoCal authenticity of McDonald’s and the Seattle bona fides of Starbucks, but today that sort of geospecific chain shop mythmaking is dead, dead, dead. All that matters now is the internet, which has flattened the operational playing field to a shocking degree, and more or less divested regionalism from the brand narrative of ascendant cool; people are as likely now to think of Death & Co. as a L.A. brand if they’re on the L.A. internet, or a D.C. brand if they’re D.C. people, or a Denver brand if they’re in the Denver loop. Everyone is tuned into their own personal broadcast station, a geolocated audience of one.

It could not remotely matter less what I think about whether or not Death & Co. is cool, or how I might strive to tell the manner in which said cool has been maintained, or the way I depict the brand’s tightrope walk between expansion and investment and what exactly went on there behind the scenes in the union fight and all the rest of it, or the ease with which the founder slips seamlessly between charming hospitality font and board-speak borg, and how uneasy it all makes me. That unease itself is a vestigial limb of the ideas my Gen X elders distilled into my head, back when there was still some tension between being cool and selling out, before selling out became the sole and primary goal of every miserable soul with a front-facing camera. Even wondering about how a place stayed cool is fundamentally, irreducibly and profoundly uncool in 2024. We’re so uncool and we don’t even know it.

It turns out that the act of becoming a chain in and of itself has kept Death & Co. in the conversation here in 2024 in a meaningful way. I enjoy visiting other cocktail renaissance–era establishments very much, but through chainification, Death & Co. has spared itself from being only that. Attached to not just a bar but to a brand, the pre-Prohibition, neo-speakeasy vibe of the original is not some relic, but rather, a valuable storytelling chapter in an evolving brand narrative. Chains have never been cool, and yet, becoming a chain has given new life to Death & Co. in a way its contextual contemporaries do not share in. This is a distinctly modern, 21st-century performance of what chains can mean in the story of a brand, and I’m not sure there’s another bar or restaurant in America that has performed quite as convincingly—and paradoxically—as Death & Co.

Queasily it has dawned on me that my understanding of Death & Co. as an NYC brand, and the very idea that Death & Co. was somehow exporting a form of ‘New York cool,’ was in fact atrociously out of touch and dated.

I keep thinking about that kid at the bar. He’s become the aspirational person in this story, and quite unwillingly, but I have to wonder: Will he look back at this moment in 15 years, and remember when he was young and intimidated by how impossibly dope-and-wow his moment at Death & Co. felt, back when he was was 24? And will the bar still be there, making the next generation of 24-year-olds feel that very same way? 

The poor guy looked so befuddled, there was a part of me that wanted to lean over in that moment and pierce the veil, to say something like, “Hey, maybe you’d like to try the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned?” From there I would politely, helpfully intone about the drink’s history, having been invented right there in that very room. It would be a helpful gesture across generations, one solo punter at the bar to another, and make for one of those nice cinematic moments at the end of an essay. 

But instead I let him feel it out. 

The kid couldn’t possibly be paying less attention to me, and that’s because he’s tapped into the original purpose of these places in the first place, some of the very oldest human communal culturo-technology there is, a mutual meeting space in which we might encounter other members of the species. He’s seated to my left and has drawn all my attention, but to my immediate right there happen to be two more 20-somethings, drinking their 20-something-dollar drinks, and chatting together as though theirs is the most important barroom conversation on the entire spinning globe at that exact moment. (They’re right, of course.) 

In an act of mimetic desire out of René Girard, our hero at last summons the barkeep, and asks over the top of his menu with a point, “What’s that she’s having there?”

The girls stop their conversation for just a beat.

His drink arrives with a shake-a-shake and the girls look at him across me and he looks at them and they sip in unison, and I swear I see all three of them smile, in just that flicker of a moment. No one is on their phones. 

I pay and leave and walk back out into the steaming rush of the East Village, a place not unlike the bar itself, somewhere capable of making me feel something deep and emotionally primal every single time I visit, no matter how many years have passed. 

Read more about the Chainification of America on Eater.

Related Articles

Tagged: culture