Last week, my friend Patty and I decided to go check out Death & Co. in the East Village. Yes, it was the first time I'd been there. I know that this is an absolutely ludicrous thing to say in 99.999% of the developed world, but there are almost too many top-notch cocktail bars in New York -- one can get paralyzed for choice, especially when each choice is gonna be great, and when they're all in the same neck of the woods, serving up what is essentially the same sort of thing. I first discovered Angel's Share, then eagerly awaited the opening of Pegu Club, then found myself in Flatiron Lounge, and kind of just worked that troika for a little while, before branching out to PDT and now finally Death & Co. (Yes, that means I haven't yet been to Little Branch, or Milk & Honey, or Employees Only. Apologies. I'll get there. Really.)
The place was full when we got there, which surprised us as it was a little after eight on a Wednesday night. No problem, though: Aaron at the door very kindly took our names and phone numbers, and told us he'd buzz us when there was an opening, in about 25 minutes. So we toddled off down the block to the Cherry Tavern, a wonderful friendly little hole-in-the-wall that aspires to divehood but is too friendly (and frankly, not disgusting enough) for true dive status. (It's home of the famous "Tijuana Special": a can of Tecate and shot of well tequila for $5, not to mention the "Old Glory Special": PBR and shot of whiskey for $4.)
As luck would have it, we'd only gotten about three or four sips into our beers when my phone rang. They had a place for us. Would it be okay if we sat at the bar? I think that'd be just fine.
We were greeted by bartender Damon, who proceeded to roll out the red carpet, set the stage, and generally blow our minds for the next couple hours.
The cocktail menu is extensive, and it was supplemented that night by the menu from The Alembic, a cocktailian boîte in San Francisco that was participating in a bartender exchange with Death & Co. that week. (Nifty idea, no?)
Here's Alembic's Thomas Ward behind the stick:
(Apologies for the blurriness; it was dark and he was moving fast.)
I started things off with an Illywhacker, which was composed of applejack, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, and chocolate bitters. An amazing, rich cocktail with a surprising anise note (which I'm assuming came from the bitters.) The chocolate bitters -- which are actually the xocolatl mole bitters from Bittermens -- are fascinating, and I especially enjoyed the interplay between them and the Carpano Antica. When I asked about them, Damon casually pointed out Avery and Janet Glaser, the team behind Bittermens, sitting at the end of the bar. Yep, it's that kind of place. (Of course, I've mentioned Bittermens in this space previously, if the name rings a bell.)
Patty chose the "Coin Toss": the spirit of your choice (among rye, applejack, Scotch, rum, and Cognac) mixed with Benedictine, yellow Chartreuse, Carpano Antica Formula, and Peychaud's bitters. She chose rye, and the result was a spicy, complex, herbal drink.
For our second round, we asked Damon to suggest something for us. I asked for a gin drink, and mentioned that I like Twentieth Centuries and Corpse Revivers and Aviations. He set to work making a Last Word, which is something I'd only read about on the cocktail blogs. Lime, Maraschino (Maraska), green Chartreuse, and gin made for a very balanced (more than I'd expect for a drink that's half liqueur), refreshing cocktail. I'ma gonna make more of these.
Patty described her tastes, and Damon deployed one of his original drinks, the Man of Leisure. This was made with Elijah Craig 12-year-old bourbon, Carpano Antica Formula (is this place the reason why I can never find a bottle of the stuff at LeNell's?), Cointreau, Belle de Brillet pear liqueur, lemon juice, Angostura bitters, and a flamed lemon peel for garnish. This drink was spicy and complex, and on the sweet side without losing the bourbon's bite. The taste was deep, and kept unfolding -- first the bourbon would hit you, then the orange and pear notes would emerge, only to give way to the vermouth. This one's a winner.
After tasting an original drink like that, we had to know more about our bartender. He was very busy -- he and Thomas were handling the drinks for the entire bar -- and after shooting some tequila with the wait staff (El Tesoro Reposado, if you must know), he very kindly turned his attention again to us and gave us some moments of his time. He told us how he was "the new guy" on the staff -- he'd been there all of three nights! -- but that he felt like he had some tricks up his sleeve after running a bar in Brooklyn for many years, and turning its clientele on to the marvelous world of cocktails. Damon also has that gift of selective eavesdropping that all great bartenders have; I was telling Patty about some additions to the Bitter Truth line of bitters that I'd spotted at LeNells (more on this in a future post) and before the words were barely out of my mouth, he plunked a visual aid on the bar in front of me. (He also let me smell and taste the new Bitter Truth Celery Bitters. Very interesting. I'm not generally a celery guy, but these could be fun to play with.) In short, Damon's friendly and funny and enthusiastic and willing to geek out on cocktailiana while still practicing his craft at a very high level indeed.
Patty asked for another original cocktail at this point, and Damon made one up on the spot for her. Rittenhouse rye, lemon juice, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, orange and Angostura bitters, simple syrup, and an egg white. After tasting it -- and tasting it -- Patty dubbed it the "French Sheets" for its sumptuous-yet-racy vibe. So of course, I had to taste too, and it's a fantastic drink. Fruity and floral, but anchored by the rye and bitters, and you know what? It's fun to taste a great drink you've never had before. It's even more fun to taste a great original drink that didn't exist until now. And it's the most fun of all to taste a great original drink that you have all the ingredients for in your bar at home.
Finally, I finished off the evening with a Blood & Sand, another drink that I'd only read about and couldn't quite picture how it'd come together.
This is an unusual drink, given that it calls for Scotch (the only other Scotch cocktails that come to mind at the moment are the Rob Roy and Rusty Nail.) Damon used a combination of two Compass Box whiskies: the Asyla and the Peat Monster, which definitely lives up to its name. The resulting cocktail, a variation on the Bronx, is interesting. I'm not sure how close to my tastes it lies, but I kept thinking about this cocktail for literally days, and I'll definitely order more of them. The smoky flavor of the Peat Monster hits you first, and smokiness combined with the Cherry Heering is a fascinating combination that unfolds slowly in your mouth. The Scotch plays with the vermouth, too, as iodine gives way to sweetness and spiciness, and the orange reasserts itself at surprising times. I had to drink this one slowly, as each mouthful played out for at least thirty seconds as it revealed itself.
And with that, we called it a night. A successful one, too: we met some interesting cocktail geeks on both sides of the bar, we were introduced to new ingredients and new ways to combine them, nibbled on some yummy crab dip, and made some new friends. Can you ask for anything more in a cocktailian joint?