Every December, my mother calls me to consult on a gift for my husband for the holidays. She usually has a couple of standard ideas in mind- clothing, books, a nice bottle of scotch. This year, however, I came to the conversation armed with my own suggestions (aka- gifts ideas for Blair that were really, sorta, kinda, gifts for myself). I may have even preempted the call… “Hi mom…..you still looking for a gift for Blair?……Yeah?……I know exactly what he’d like….” So when Blair unwrapped the iconic black linen book with silver letters, it was indeed Christmas morning for us both.
Since December, the Death and Co book has become a much-used and well-loved staple in our collection of cocktail writings. The pages wrinkled with citrus juice and stained with vermouth, we pull the book from the shelf weekly to try out new recipes, re-make old favourites, or just to read the stories of a beloved regular or past bartender of the award-winning New York cocktail bar.
As luck would have it, David Kaplan (co-author of the Death and Co book, co-owner of Death and Co and Proprietors LLC), happened to be in Vancouver for the Grey Goose Pour Masters Competition in June. I had the good fortune to sit down with him and talk everything from books to cocktails, and nightclubs in Vegas to craft bars in LA.
What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
An underwater photographer-slash-dive master. I’ve always loved the ocean and I started diving from a young age, younger than you’re legally supposed to be able to dive. I thought living that type of life and traveling and being under water sounded incredible.
Was there a specific moment, experience or conversation that made you decide to make a career of working in the bar business?
I think a lot about that, especially in interviews with the press. I also feel like doing interviews like this is a great time to reflect on things you didn’t realize before. I usually start with the moment when I was really young, probably nine or ten, maybe even younger. I would travel with my family and I would see the back bar in a restaurant and I was taken by it, fascinated with the romanticism and the mystery behind it.
But I think the other thing that I discounted or didn’t realize until recently was that no one in my family really drinks. My mom loves a margarita but she’s like five-foot-nothing and has one and a half and is done for the night. When my dad came to Death and Co for the first time he had a glass of wine and I was like “Swing and a miss!” But I realize everyone in my family is an incredible host. I’ve seen that in both of my parents and all of my siblings. Even my more extended relatives. I think hosting and being a part of the dinner parties my parents would throw and being a young, little ham and making jokes, enjoying that attention but also enjoying setting things up…pumping the keg, and getting people beer (I grew up in Jackson Hole so grownups have keg parties). I loved it and I wanted that as a career and I feel like I got it. I feel pretty lucky.
What was the path to opening Death and Co?
Not too long before we opened I was in college in upstate New York for fine art photography. I knew I really loved where I was going in fine art and I was very proud of what I had accomplished. I felt like I was leading my crits and I started a gallery in Rochester. That was enough for me to satisfy that itch. But I felt like I needed something more quantifiable as a career that I was more in control of and that was always hospitality. My first job was at an old fashioned soda fountain as a soda jerk when I was 13.
So I got a job in Vegas through a friend of the family working for a group called The Nine Group. I was working for Rain Nightclub in The Palms. It was essentially a gimme job. They didn’t really give me any responsibility which made it really fucking boring. I was the youngest employee there and the youngest VIP host in the history of their company. I was like 22 but looked 18…maybe. I had my slightly ill-fitting Armani suit and the earpiece and a walkie-talkie microphone up my sleeve. It’s the the opposite of everything in our careers now. It was a good thing though because I never really knew if I was ready to live in New York because I had come from a small town. Being in the nightclub atmosphere I was so comfortable and became quite confident moving through large crowds of people. I’ve always loved difficult customers and making them happy. That was no different there.
But to me New York was history and culture and friends and community and Vegas was none of those things. I wanted to open a bar where there was this focus on the customer experience, the opposite of a nightclub. Death and Co was my knee-jerk reaction to everything that was there but at that point I was pretty clear that opening this bar was what I wanted to do.
When I was in Vegas I didn’t really know anyone there so I was just consuming two to three bar books a week- trying to edify myself on that entire world. From there I moved to New York and my Grandma passed just a year and a half before. She left me a small amount of money and I thought maybe I’ll invest this in a bar to learn more about it. But I got pitched on a couple of bars and I didn’t want to be a part of them. I wanted to execute something that I saw and believed should exist, something that I wanted out there in the world. We started in on opening Death and Co shortly thereafter. I was 23 at the time. A neighbour of mine, Ravi owned this tiny little wine shop and he had info on this place around the corner. That was Raga. Ravi and I ended up partnering, got a line of credit and we both put every penny we had into it and opened up Death and Co.
When I was in Vegas and when I was at school I was visiting New York all the time and I started to realize that the bar industry was an appreciated area of study. That was a real moment for me. I was faking it and pretending to play bar with Mr. Boston’s Bartender Guide since I was 17 or 18. When I realized that there were people out there like David Wondrich, Dale DeGroff, Sasha Petraske, Michael Jackson (who is an amazing beer and whiskey writer), I was so excited. I realized that there are people that are treating this like a real thing and not just a drug. Because to me it was never about the fact that it’s an intoxicant. That was one of the things that was romantic about it and shrouded in blurry mystery. But it was more about the fact that this is a way to view culture and to celebrate flavour and hospitality.
Did you ever work behind that bar at Death and Co?
I’ve never bartended a day in my life. That’s my dirty little secret. I guest shift sometimes because a lot of people don’t know that I’ve never bartended. So whenever people ask me to guest shift, I have to break it to them. I’m not a bartender. I’ve never been a bartender. I’m a fan. I can make any drink, I would just have to sit there with the recipe in front of me. I know all the fundamental things about making drinks, I just don’t do it for a living so I’m not the most proficient at it.
Do you have a favourite memory from Death and Co?
It’s kind of a cheating answer in that it really encapsulates a lot of memories condensed into one day, but my favourite memory or moment was when we were shooting for the Death and Co Book. We invited a bunch of regulars in and we had a bunch of our bartenders, past and present. We were shooting the few lifestyle pictures in the book. It was like being in a time warp. I definitely got emotional. I’m getting emotional now even talking about it. It was amazing. We had all of these incredible bartenders behind the bar that had spent time at Death and Co behind the stick that now run amazing programs. It was like this crazy high school reunion and all the customers were our favourite regulars. And that was 2.5 years ago.
There were also some amazing days early on where I just had no expectation of what this would mean or what it would grow into, that eight years later we’d be spending every Wednesday in a different city in Canada and hanging out with a white horse and a bunch of synchronized swimmers [in reference to the Pour Masters Competition].
Was there a point when you knew you had something?
It’s funny because I remember the exact moment. A few days after we opened we were front page of Sunday Styles but that wasn’t it for me because that was terrifying. It was so local and I had no context. I don’t really know what I thought. To me I was just like “Cool! We’re in the newspaper.” I grew up in a really small town so everyone is in the newspaper. This isn’t a big deal. For whatever reason, I had no context for the New York- fucking- Times. I had no idea. The moment was a few months later. It was the first time I really went out to another bar since the opening. I went to this place that used to be a dive called Hanger Bar and it’s now a cocktail bar called Elsa. I walked in and I was with a friend. The bar was slammed and at some point, my friend introduced me as the owner of Death and Co. It was one of those moments where the record screeched to a halt and the bartenders stopped what they were doing. They all came over and started talking to me, wanting to be a part of this thing, inquiring about jobs. It was just funny to have this of all things to be the moment where I realized that this was something outside of the four walls that we had built.
What drew you to LA?
Apparently it’s already been five years! I’ve always had family out in LA. When I was in Las Vegas, I thought I was going to end up in LA. I didn’t think I’d end up back in New York. I was ready for a change. I’m from a small mountain town and I just wanted more outdoor world in my life. I’ve always really liked LA. I’m not sure any one of these things outweigh the other, but strategically I thought Death and Co grew to a point where it was beyond anything I ever could have hoped for and if I want to keep doing this, it made sense to go try and build a tentpole on the other coast. I thought if we wanted to keep doing this it made sense to have LA and New York and then hopefully grow from there.
Where did the idea for Proprietors from come?
It was born in part from the legal battle that Death and Co was going through to stay open and keep our liquor license. That really gave me pause because I was so emotionally invested in every piece of that, both the negativity and the positivity. I really needed to take pause and figure out what I wanted to do next. And it took me a while. Three years of kind of scratching my head and I was still working but had no clue what was next. Proprietors was kind of the answer where I wanted to learn more about this, I want to get better at this. I want to help other people do this. And by doing so, continue my learning process. I loved working with Alex [Day]. We have very similar backgrounds. So I formed Proprietors and I asked Alex if he wanted to join. I told him I had a guy in Philadelphia calling about a project and that project was the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company. And that was it. We figured out what our scope of capabilities were. For us it was kind of always a thing that we were doing on the side to buy time and get money and get better at this while we were looking to open our own projects. It’s really grown into something so great. I love Proprietors almost or just as much as I love any of our bars. Our office that we built in LA is just as special to me as any of our bars. It looks like a bar and an office met each other and had a really good date.
Are there any projects that you have on the go right now that you’re really excited about?
I’m really excited lately with our general work flow and our awareness within what we’re doing. We are cognizant enough to take pause often now and check-in with ourselves and eachother, myself, Alex, and Devon Tarby, to say what are we doing? Where are we going? What personally and individually do we want to be doing? We do that every few months because the pace of work is just so crazy. I’m really excited with our current place and future planning. I’m incredibly excited about our hub of constant creativity, our forever blank canvas, The Walker Inn which is one of the most special bars we’ve ever done and a bar that we wanted to create for years.
I’m really excited with some of our consulting projects and I never thought that would be something that would be so gratifying. But we’re continuously getting better clients, helping them build better bars on a larger scale both on visibility and traffic in those places. And we have book number two now in the works.
I read an interview with you that said that writing a book was more personal than opening a bar. Can you explain?
A book is a totally different experience. It’s incredibly gratifying in similar ways to a bar because it’s intensely curatorial. For me, that’s one of my favourite parts of everything that we do. We get to choose all these little details that affect a guest’s experience. We get to choose the photo aesthetic, the illustrations, the feel, the texture of the book. That is exactly what we sold Ten Speed when we pitched them the book. This was not something decided in a office. This was something we decided a year before we even got the deal. We said it will be black linen. It will be cloth. So all of those things are really gratifying.
But I think it’s more personal because it’s a much more contained process. It was really Alex, myself and Nick just guiding this thing. When you’re building a bar there are designers, contractors, there’s your opening team and then it evolves. But with a book, once it’s done it’s done. It’s on the shelves. It’s not going to evolve in the same way a bar can. A bar is a living organism that has so many people and so many moving parts and without any of those people… Death and Co would never have been Death and Co as the David Kaplan Bar. First of all, who would bartend? It was always representative of every single person there. So I think in that way writing and executing a book is much more personal and I think the next book is going to be even more personal because it’s just Alex, myself and Nick writing about where we are now within cocktails.
Was there anything that you wanted in the book that didn’t make the cut?
We could have gone on for a good amount longer. I was really confused by some elements of the book process in that they are like “It’s going to be 307 pages and it’s going to come out on October 7th.” And I’m like “How do you know it’s going to be 307 pages? We haven’t written the thing yet.” It’s actually 320 pages. We did push it some. There’s not one particular thing in the book that I can think of that I think should have made it and it didn’t.
Alex: The book is a collection of histories and because of that it’s a challenge and it was always going to be a challenge from the get go to have everyone’s perspectives fit within the pages. I feel a certain level of wishing that certain people’s stories had been told more or more dynamically. People often ask me if I’m excited about the book and I am but I’m still nervous about it sometimes because all these people I worked with for years and years, it represents all of them while simultaneously representing one idea. What a challenge!
David: And all of the people in the book are amazing but incredibly busy because they’re all bartenders who no longer work at Death and Co. So we were chasing Thomas Waugh around and Brian Miller and Joaquin Simo. And everyone is amazing. The Death and Co door never closes but still everyone is fucking busy. We could have put so much more weight on the brilliance that is Phil Ward and everything that he contributed. We could have put so much weight on the brilliance that is Joaquin Simo and his culinary integration and how that changed the landscape of Death and Co. Similarly, we could have done the same thing with Brian and his thoughtfulness within Tiki and how that influenced even the non-tiki drinks that we do. You could do that for every major person that worked at Death and Co.
Bar Owner. Author. Consultant. Is there a role that you like best?
I don’t know. I’ve never heard all of those things listed out. That’s the first time. It’s really weird. I don’t know what I self-identify as. I usually put ‘designer’ on the customs card just cause ‘restaurateur’ is so hard to spell. Or I put bar owner. In the end, I don’t know if I really identify wholly and completely with any of those. What I love doing is creating environments for guests and I love having a great range of business interests that I get to explore. I’ll get on the phone with a lawyer and execute a deal any day. I love that. But that doesn’t make me a bar owner or a consultant or an author. But it does make up a good part of what my job is. I think I’m lucky enough to get to wear a lot of hats and I get to wear all of those hats every day. In some ways it makes me not as great at certain aspects of those as some of the people that I really look up to and admire. You know I look at Bobby Heugel and I think he’s such a good bar owner because he is also a great business person and a great bartender and he’s great at hospitality and a thoughtful researcher. I’m not really that but I’m a lot of other things and I love that I get to be those things as well.
I once read that the Conference Cocktail has a really special place in your heart…
David: Probably because I drink a lot of them. The Conference has a really special place along with about 5-10 other cocktails that have a really significant place for me and for Death and Co. I think different people would pick slightly different cocktails. I think The Conference would be on everyone’s top 10. For me it was one of these Holy Shit moments where I was just blow away. I did not see that coming- the influence of tiki in a stirred cocktail and the combination of so many different base spirits to be something so elegant and so good and so drinkable and sessionable for such a complex cocktail. Still when I have that drink i’m like “Fuck! Brian-fucking-Miller.” It’s just such a good drink. I didn’t meet the love of my life having that cocktail or anything so I don’t know about a special place in my heart, but it’s up there with the Elder Fashioned. [to Alex] What would be your top 3?
Alex: The Conference is up there. As a bartender that’s a drink that I constantly pull out for other people as an opportunity to surprise and exceed their expectations. If somebody likes Old Fashioneds and there are a litany of class Old Fashioned cocktail variations or new versions that are ok. But they’re not as good as an Old Fashioned. They’re good and cool and interesting. But The Conference is still true to form in an Old Fashioned model while being so unique and special. That drink in and of itself for me was the gateway to being obsessed with Cognac and Calvados and how those combine with Rye Whiskey and Bourbon. How do all these things go together? You’ve got two amazing French things, two amazing American things and they are bonded by mole bitters…what? It’s phenomenal in it’s brilliance. You read and it you’re like “That’s a train wreck.” But it’s not. It’s perfect.