What’s shakin, cocktail fans? Welcome to Episode 230 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast! I’m your host, Eric Kozlik. In this mini audio essay, I explore a recent trend that I think might be compelling to many of you.
Death & Co. to Open a Location in Washington, DC
Our most-engaged Instagram story of the past year – by far and away – was a poll I posted out of sheer curiosity after hearing that my town, Washington, DC, was about to receive our very own Death & Co. Bar. The Columbia Room, probably our city’s most acclaimed cocktail bar, run by past podcast guest Derek Brown, recently announced that they would be shutting down their operation in Blagden Alley, and in the same breath, they informed the world that they would be replaced in that location by Death & Co.
Death & Co., of course, is a bar that was at the epicenter of the Cocktail Renaissance in New York City. They’ve published one of the best-selling cocktail books of all time, their New York location continues to thrive, and recently they’re exploring ways to take their model and export it to other places. Makes sense. This is what you do when you have a successful product. Other cocktail bars like The Dead Rabbit – yet another New York establishment, have been pursuing the same model.
The People Have Spoken
So my question, which I posted as an Instagram poll, was designed to do a quick temperature check and see if my feelings about this exportation of New York cocktail establishments matched up with all of yours. I basically asked, are you pumped about Death & Co. opening up a branch in DC? Or, would you prefer to simply go to New York if you wanted to visit a New York cocktail bar? Or, option 3, do you simply not care?
To my delight, we got almost 50 responses to this question, which is enough to plot a pretty decent trend line.
27 (or 57.4%) of our respondents were totally pumped that Death & Co. was opening up a location here in DC. Whereas 14 people (or 29.7%) said they’d simply go to NYC if they wanted a New York cocktail bar experience. And 6 folks (or 12.7%) said they just DID NOT CARE. So if this was a room with 10 people in it, roughly 6 of them would be stoked. 3 would be generally unenthused, and 1 person wouldn’t understand why we’re even having this conversation in the first place.
I think that’s interesting on a number of levels.
Why I’m in the Minority
First, I think it’s interesting that I fall into the minority here, being one of the folks who’s not super excited about a Death & Co. coming here to DC. Nothing against the company. I’m sure they’re great people who make awesome drinks. But never having been to Death & Co in my limited travels to New York…if I ever decide to go and have an experience there, I’d like it to be at THE Death & Co., not simply at one of many Death & Co. locations.
To me, it’s sort of like taking a proper noun – a unique, alive, and unreplicable person, place, or thing – and turning it into a common noun, something that’s entirely interchangeable. But again, as our survey indicates, I’m in the minority here! If Death & Co. decided to follow my lead they’d definitely be leaving a lot of money on the table.
Second, I think it’s interesting that this poll raises lots of “why” questions. I just told you why I’m not all that crazy about a Death & Co. in DC, but there’s 27 people who responded that probably have really compelling counter-arguments that are just as valid as my general curmudgeonliness. And also, even though it’s a small minority, I’m really curious to know why 12% of people don’t even think I’m asking an interesting question here. I’d love to know if they think there’s a BETTER way to approach this topic.
In the end, I think this simple survey provides us with a broad stroke snapshot of a very, VERY complex landscape. There are undoubtedly a TON of factors playing into the decision to export Death & Co. to a bunch of different cities. And there are even more factors that influence how all our poll respondents answered in the way they did.
One way in which our current moment mirrors past trends in the “chain-ification” of bars and restaurants is the impulse or, we might say, the “craving” for a sure thing, paired with a severe case of cultural exhaustion. Coming out of a pandemic, we’re all completely frayed, overstimulated, on edge due to a hundred different political, social, and economic stressors, and when people start feeling like this in large enough numbers, “safe” food and drink options are almost always more appealing than trying something new. It’s a risk aversion tactic that seeps into people’s bar preferences from elsewhere in their life.
We’ve seen chains erupt after tough times in the past. Two of my favorite examples are:
- Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber blossoming in the wake of the great depression and then surging again after World War II.
- TGI Friday’s opening in 1965, then exploding into a chain in the late 70s and 80s after the disillusionment from the Vietnam War and over a decade of social unrest.
The proliferation of chains like these totally deserves it’s own episode, so I won’t belabor the point here.
And to be clear, I’m not calling Death & Co. a chain. I don’t think we’re at that point QUITE yet. But I do see this situation as one where a cocktail bar that has managed to maintain itself through a very tough pandemic is seeing a lot of open real estate in major cities and a drinking public that doesn’t have the bandwidth to take a risk on yet another new bar that might not make it past 6 months.
Death & Co. has made its bones by being perhaps THE poster child for the “riff on a classic” model of cocktail menu creation. They came of age during a time in the cocktail Renaissance when that was new and exciting, and they’ve been doing it for long enough now that they’re comfortable rolling out that model anywhere they can deploy their time-tested approach to hospitality. That’s what happens when you scale something – you try to take the most essential ingredients to your initial success, and you find ways to deploy those principles and strategies in other places.
If you visit the webpage for their Denver location, they kind of lay out their elevator pitch, describing it as:
Like its New York flagship, though with a completely new and unique menu, Death & Co Denver offers warm hospitality, attentive, full-table service, knowledgeable staff, and uncompromising quality in all offerings within a grand lobby setting.
The upcoming DC location will be the fourth Death & Co., joining its sibling operations in New York, Denver, and LA. Right now, this strategy seems to be making a lot of people – including the bulk of our poll respondents – very happy.
My One Fear
I guess the only thing I’m nostalgic about in-absentia is an opportunity I fear I’ve lost: the experience of walking into THE Death & Co. in New York, and having an incredible, non-replicable experience there on my own terms.
I’m not here to begrudge anyone the opportunity to scale their business. Lord knows that’s something I’ve been trying desperately to do for a long time here at Modern Bar Cart. But my main question is:
Why not take the Death & Co. playbook and use it in different places under a different name and with the intention of really leaning in and paying tribute to the local drinking culture. I think that when you make carbon copies of a thing, something inevitably gets lost in translation. And what I’m lamenting here is the potential for watering down a program that has become great for a reason.
But hey, I also need to point out, for the final time, that I SEEM TO BE IN THE MINORITY with this opinion. My uneasiness doesn’t need to be your uneasiness. I’m just glad for the opportunity to think deeply and ponder openly what trends like this mean for me, for you, and for the beverage industry in general. And I’m super thankful that this opportunity comes to me through the engagement and attention of our awesome Modern Bar Cart community who saw a simple poll and took just a second of their collective time to drop me a response.
My final question is this:
What do YOU think about successful cocktail bars like Death & Co. and The Dead Rabbit starting to pop up in cities across the US? Do you think it’s a net positive, or are you sympathetic to my take on things? You can always drop me a line by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by messaging us on Instagram. Seriously, I’d love to know what you think.