We recently caught up with Death & Co co-founder David Kaplan in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Home of their new Normandie Club and the very exclusive, 27-seat, reservation only cocktail bar, The Walker Inn.
Kaplan opened up about Proprietors LLC latest projects (Presently 3 in New York, 3 in Los Angeles) and gave some thoughts about the Death & Co cocktail book nearly three years after sending it to print.
1) The team behind Death & Co have been called, ‘sophisticated drink architects’. Do you recall an instance when you were first aware of the fact that your level of attention to designing cocktails, and the spaces they are served in, had super-ceded a common level of understanding?
“It all goes back to Death & Co, for us. Before there was Proprietors LLC, there was just Death & Co, and out of that space was born my friendship and business relationship with Alex Day. My appreciation for his level of execution grew from there.
“Four months after Death & Co opened we went out to this nearby dive bar called the Hangar Bar. Ironically, it has now become a cocktail bar, called Ella. We’d already gotten a huge amount of press but I didn’t know what that meant until being introduced to the Hangar bartenders and they literally all stopped what they were doing on a busy Friday to come talk about Death & Co. They wanted to know how to get a job there. They had such an appreciation for what it was. That was the first real indication of the love people would have for Death & Co and that what we do has some special meaning to people.”
“Alex and I are both incredibly detail oriented and that’s part of the ethos under which we founded our company, The Proprietors LLC. We’ve since brought on Devon Tarby, who’s been great.”
2) How do you remove a drink from an actual menu, once it is published in a book? Or do you just perpetually keep growing the menu?
“Death & Co started out for a brief amount of time as 11 drinks. It grew very quickly to 96 drinks! Thankfully, it’s no longer that long. It’s always been original cocktails and we’ve rotated the menu. About 60-80% of the menu turns over every time we do a new menu. We do a new menu three times a year. None of the drinks stay on for more than two menu changes, so the longest a drink will be on the menu is nine months.
“We try to keep all possible ingredients around, so we can make any cocktail from the 500+ Death & Co book canon. All of the drinks in the book are from the first five years of Death & Co and in the years since the book has come out we’ve developed about 250+ new drinks. We try to make sure we can make each one of those drinks. We could definitely do a new book with all the new cocktail recipes, thanks to all the amazing talent we’ve had.”
3) There’s a section in the book that chronicles your new drink workshops. How often do you workshop for new cocktails?
“We do, at least, two menu tastings per new menu, with three new menus per year. We usually also receive submissions after that. Our menu tastings are where we workshop drinks as a group. We make drinks, one at a time. The group observes and asks questions like, ‘What were you going for with this drink?’ or ‘What was your thought process?’ We ask why they used a certain product. We try variations of the drink. As much as possible, we want to keep drinks as close to what the bartender wanted while refining it and getting it to a point where we all agree,
‘That’s just a bangin’ cocktail!’
“Proprietors LLC have an office and a workshop with a huge inventory of alcohol, a full bar and kitchen area. We’re developing drinks for our properties and for companies we consult on about two to four days, per week. There’s always someone in the lab working through drinks. It’s great to be able to do that in a space that is not a functioning bar. It allows for so much experimentation.”
“The lab is where we first introduced sous vide, rotovap, cryovac, centrofuge and experimented with them before putting them into a functioning bar program.”
“We weren’t interested in simply putting out a book to capitalize on our name or gain more credibility. Our goal was to give back to the community that we love. To write a book that encapsulated what cocktail culture is, to us.”
4) What is one of the coolest experiences to come from being a part of the Death & Co book?
“It’s crazy to think about how this thing that you created is out there. I get pictures from friends who are traveling all over the world, and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, I was in this bar in Hong Kong and they had the Death & Co book’ and I’m like, ‘That’s freaking wacky!’ What a weird and flattering and deeply cool thing.”
5) Where, outside of New York and Los Angeles, would you like to open a bar?
“Every city I go to, I just fall in love. This year we did a 16-city book tour, plus a bunch of travel on top of that. There wasn’t one city, where if the right partnership or opportunity came up, we wouldn’t consider.
“Alex, and I, would love to open a bar abroad, preferably in Spain. The cocktail cultures in every city are so cool. On the immediate horizon I see Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami. It’s tough to slow down with the ease of air travel and the amazing bar culture. You go to any city, in any market, and immediately feel at home. It’s a special industry we get to live in.”
“We want to shake guests out of whatever is going on in their lives and bring them into the moment.” – David Kaplan
6) How do you avoid competing against yourself, with so many projects on the go?
“I don’t think it’s a problem. Our goal is to further beverage culture, if we can do that by putting great cocktail programs in other restaurants or bars. We’re working on some shared workspaces that have cafe’s in them. It’s definitely not the type of spaces that we open. We don’t feel like we’re competing with ourselves. It possibly could have been true for some of the jobs we took in the early days. We took jobs that were a similar size as our place, but we quickly realized our hearts were not in to that. We build programs, now, for people in venues that are very distinctly different from what we do. The places we own are our heart and soul but it can be so fun to put a drink program into a theater group, for instance. That just keeps the juices flowing and challenges ourselves.”
7) How do you retain the talent you create at Death & Co?
“I think we retain great talent at our bars by giving them a voice. Not over-managing them. Ensuring that they know that they represent a great part of that place. We allow them creative authorship and a sense of ownership. We seek to create a great culture.
“You need great leadership in each of those bars. We try to be a voice in the conversation instead of being a dictatorship. Giving people the respect that you want. We’ve built a team that sees everyone’s expectations of performance are very high. Doing so, not out of fear, but out of a sense of ‘Band of Brothers’ type loyalty to their team. Where you don’t want to let your peers, or yourself, down.”
“Our personalities are that we want to be around people that we love. We want to see them succeed. If they leave, we want to see them do great things. We want them to know that the door is always open. Our experience thus far has shown that this is a path to staff retention.”
8) What advice do you have for bartenders seeking to put their signature on a menu?
“The best leaders lead by example. Be inclusive. If you put only your drinks on a menu, for instance, and push everyone else’s aside, you don’t last very long. You’re not doing more work than everyone else, you’re just making sure your voice is the only one in the conversation. If you encourage everyone around you to succeed, lending ideas, lending support – that’s going to be a better representation of you and your signature.”
“A great leader offers the broadest creative range to their team and then because they may have more understanding, or a better level of execution, they can fill the gaps on the menu. That usually means they’ll have the most drinks on a menu. That’s what we like to see out of our leaders.”
9) You have nearly a dozen variations of the Daiquiri in the Death & Co book. Do you think that the book’s popularity has had any influence on the re-birth of demand for the Daiquiri?
“The Daiquiri has grown for the last few years. I don’t think it’s because of the Death & Co book, haha. We’re just one set of voices in a sea of voices proclaiming our love for the Daiquiri. It’s one of those classic bartender drinks that can be made in a million different ways and they’re almost all delicious. It’s a really interesting litmus test to see how bars put their creative spin on it, or how they execute it.”
“Does a bar ask you what proportions you like? Do they ask you what rum you like? Do they make a twist on a Daiquiri, instead of the actual classic?”
“I’ve seen it all and it says something about how they train their staff. It’s also a great point the book makes, effectively saying, “Look. A Daiquiri is a Daiquiri, but we all love our Daiquiris a bit different.” It communicates a broader message. We have our recipe for a Oaxacan Old Fashioned. But you can make a tequila old-fashioned any way you want. That was a good way for us to showcase that.”
10) What spirit would you most like to be affiliated with the production of?
“If you ask Alex Day, he would definitely say Calvados or Sherry. Alex drinks those two things in great measure.”
“I’m in this industry because I love damn near everything. I’d probably love to make a style of Brandy. I want to go down and learn more about Pisco. Or Rum, I’ve always loved Rum production. I think it’s beautiful and I love the culture around it. I love the diverse range of things you can create with different production styles.”
Have a favorite part of the Death & Co book? Tell us about it on twitter or in the comments.
The Normandie Club
“The Normandie Club, in the Normandie Hotel, is a great little bar in Koreatown.”
“It has the look and feel of a bar that you can go to everyday. Special and elevated enough for an occasion but comfortable enough to be your local. Timeless design. We take an inclusive approach to the cocktail list. The drinks on the menu don’t have names. They are described as “Kind of like a…”. Kind of like a Martini, kind of like a Manhattan, kind of like a Negroni, etc. We play within those categories and hopefully turn guests on to other things while giving them the context to understand it. We try to be as open-armed as possible. We have a great pedestrian alleyway with café tables. Ivy, pontoon lighting above. Open 7 days a week, same hours everyday.”
Within the Normandie Club is another bar called the Walker Inn.
“The Walker Inn is the most aspirational bar we’ve ever opened. The smallest bar we’ve ever opened. The most complicated bar we’ve ever opened. The bar is 27 seats, reservation only. Very high level of service. Very elaborate drinks. Vintage service ware. Most of the drinks come with some sort of accoutrement. The menu changes every 4-6 weeks and the menu draws inspiration from a single point. In a space this small, we get to play with as much attention to detail as we want. Right now the menu is based on PCH, or the Pacific Coast Highway. All the drinks inspired by a journey up the PCH, along the coast of California.”
“Whereas the Normandie Club is an all-purpose bar, Walker Inn is a destination bar. We have guests for a set amount of time and we can take them on a really romantic experience with cocktails. We don’t want it to take itself too seriously, but there’s a lot of technology going in to these drinks. Walker Inn is the bar that has the test bar in the back. All of our toys live here.”
“Much like our funnest bar space, Honeycut, for all the serious drink making we’re about the guest experience. On the PCH menu, we have a cocktail homage to In-N-Out. We do a milkshake with a cocoa nib infusion, served on an In-N-Out tray, with a side of “In-N-Out fries”, all in this richly appointed, elaborate setting. We want to transport people to a different place but we also want you to smile and laugh.”
The Malibu, at The Walker Inn
1 oz Tequila Cabeza
0.5 oz Encanto Pisco
0.5 oz Lillet Blanc
0.75 oz Lime Juice
0.5 oz Grapefruit Cordial
0.5 oz Grapefruit Juice
1 tsp Campari
3 drops salt solution
Method: Shake / Strain
Glass: Large Coupe
Garnish: Grapefruit Quarter
Presentation: Light wood tray, drink on left. Dark wood “surfboard” in the middle with coconut chips, partly on “sand”. Coconut oil-pink salt-grapefruit sugar “sand” on the right.