On Monday night, RiNo Yacht Club hosted David Kaplan, owner of legendary craft cocktail bar Death & Co., who made Denver a stop on a 15-city tour to promote his new mixology how-to book. Kaplan's book, named after his bar in Manhattan's East Village, was published in October and, at 320 pages, contains 500 cocktail recipes, along with various tips and tales from one of the bars that helped to fan the flames of a renewed interest in cocktail culture.
"Denver is certainly inspiring," he says, after a brief tour of some of the city's most creative cocktail destinations. "People here are doing some great stuff."
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Kaplan's presence at RiNo Yacht Club brought him back in touch with McLain Hedges and Mary Allison Wright, who own this new cocktail bar located within The Source. In 2008, Hedges and Wright visited Death & Co. on a trip to Manhattan, investigating what was then a newly blossoming cocktail renaissance in America.
Hedges was moved by his experience there. Years later, he commissioned a tattoo of a gun on his arm -- taken from an illustration on Death & Co.'s whiskey menu.
"Death & Co. has been this juggernaut in the industry," Hedges says, "pushing boundaries left and right. When you look at this book, you get a glimpse into the talented minds behind the bar program there. They still have the most top-notch bartenders in the world. The book itself is a deeper look into day-to-day life at that bar."
Kaplan opened Death & Co. in 2006, at a time when there were only five craft cocktail bars in Manhattan. He staffed the bar with inspired mixologists who helped resuscitate classic cocktails and created their own "modern classics." The book, he hopes, offers an overview of how cocktails can be made and enjoyed.
"We didn't really see much else out there that felt like a celebration of cocktail culture," Kaplan says. "The hope was that opening the cover of the book feels like opening the door to a sexy cocktail bar."
Kaplan's book aims to educate anyone, from new cocktail lovers to working bartenders. "We really wanted to set readers up with an understanding of how cocktails are made--and how they can interpret recipes," he says. Even though some of the recipes call for exotic ingredients, readers can learn how to make cocktails that are balanced.
The first recipe in the book is a modern classic called a Oaxacan Old Fashioned, a drink from Death & Co.'s early days. "I think it does a great job of exemplifying the sort of simple -- but at the time revolutionary steps -- that we were taking at the time," Kaplan says. The concept of a stirred tequila cocktail was outlandish back in 2006.
Keep Reading For More On Death & Co., including a cocktail recipe.
The Oaxacan is an example of what is referred to in the book as a "Mr. Potatohead" cocktail -- one that starts with a basic formula, but allows the bartender to substitute various components to from a new drink with each replacement. It also pioneered the concept of the "split base" cocktail, in which two spirits share the lead role as a drink's main ingredient.
"It's a beautiful drink," Kaplan says. "It was probably one of the first mezcal cocktails, and certainly the first popular mezcal cocktail anywhere." It's definitely been one of the most replicated drinks, too. "I see that almost every Mexican restaurant has a version of it now," he adds.
But Death & Co. is not just a collection of recipes. The book also includes first-person narratives in which Death & Co. regulars explain why they are regulars, what the bar means to them, what it means to be a regular there, and what they drink when they're at the bar.
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Also included is an overview of what it takes to set up a home bar, instructions on how to shake or stir a cocktail correctly, a lexicon of bartender lingo, transcripts of staff spirit tastings, and a day-in-the-life account of a Death & Co. bartender, from setting up the bar to turning off the lights before they leave.
"It's a 360-degree view of what being in cocktail culture looks like," Kaplan says, "from a bartender and bar owner's perspective -- but also from the customer's perspective. I think you'll get a lot of what cocktail culture is, and why it's alluring."
"The bulk of the book sets you up to have a better understanding of what cocktails are," he continues. "We hope that this is kind of a springboard for you to view cocktails and understand cocktails in a different way, and empower you to use it as a creative impetus to make your own."
The book is $40, and is available at Proper Pour at the Source.