It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails and give us both of their opinions of said book.
Two things make it difficult for me to be overly critical about the Death & Co. book: 1) it is visually stunning and 2) it’s a bar book that reads like a love story, which is a big part of what made me want to open FLW.
The introduction lays out its raison d’etre: “…to share our enthusiasm for our craft and the ingredients, tools, techniques and creativity essential to it” and it most certainly delivers on that front. The photography, layout, typesetting and illustrations are beautifully and artfully done, and it’s laid out in a reasonably coherent way. Fully half of the book is cocktail recipes, a section which, on my copy, is covered in so many post-it notes as to make it burdensome to carry around and difficult to read among the “Try this!” “Inspo for Shantaram?” and “What to sub?” notations. Leading up to that, however, are sections on A Night At Death & Co (a fun insider’s peek into a chaotic but somehow orderly world), Building a Bar (a discussion of key ingredients), Building a Drink (tools & techniques), and Creating New Classics (exploring styles, flavour pairings, etc).
On a second reading, much of what is covered here is “the basics”; while it’s embarrassing to admit how little I really knew before embarking on the adventure that would become FLW, my furious note-taking did help when it came time to actually make drinks in a professional setting. I still looked like a complete noob – but at least I knew the names for stuff. And while it’s pretty much impossible to learn technique (like proper stirring or shaking) from a book, the illustrations and detailed descriptions in here go a long way toward helping you understand the mechanics. It’s light on technical info (especially on the heels of just reading Liquid Intelligence), but there are a few approachable tidbits: their description of why we dry shake as an improvement to my current explanation of “you, know, science”, and the distinction they make between “lifting” bitters and “binding” bitters helps to articulate why you sometimes reach instinctively for one type versus another. The section on strategies for creating drinks is also a great place to start if you’re looking to venture a little out of your current 3 ingredient sour or old-fashioned comfort zone.
But learning the difference between a julep and a hawthorne strainer isn’t going to inspire anyone to open a cocktail bar. What spoke to me in this book is the passion on display – and the fact that almost everything is focused on people. The intermittent “The Regulars” features delivers first-hand accounts of what it’s like to be a patron at Death & Co., and each one of them clearly not only loves the place, but feels as though it belongs to them in some special way. That is not by accident and is not only because of their kickass cocktail list; there’s an underlying and unmistakable emphasis throughout on the folks who work(ed) here. Almost everything (including the cocktail recipes with little notes from their creators) is steeped in the human element. Whether it’s how a typical night shapes up (spoiler: it’s long, and crazy, and involves more than one shot), how they craft each new list (by committee), or even a couple of pages devoted to their shorthand language or their process for naming drinks, their preferred daiquiri spec, or way of landing on a “Bartender’s Choice”, it’s evident that people are at the heart of this place, and I suspect that, as much as the quality of its drinks, is what has made it into an institution.
I also feel a bit of an affinity for Dave Kaplan (although we’ve never actually met) because he A) uses a Dashiell Hammett reference; B) had little formal training before opening his bar; and C) eschewed convention and built an absurdly long cocktail list – all of which make me feel just a little better about the insane amount of hubris involved in opening my own little business. He believed in his idea, found the right people to bring it to life and, in the words of one regular, “created a world-class cocktail bar [that is] also a down-to-earth neighborhood bar”. Amen to that.
Marlene’s Last Word: This is a beautiful book of cocktailing basics that will likely inspire home enthusiasts to expand their horizons; although it may lack in practical information for pros on how to lay out a bar or how to efficiently build a round of 10 drinks, it’s an absolute must-read in how to give a place a heart and soul.
2014 is a year I won’t easily forget — I moved into a new apartment, I got used to the idea that bartending was my real job, and, well, my son was born. That was pretty important. 2014 was also a year with a real bumper crop of cocktail books, probably the peak of the cocktail renaissance in the publishing world. In addition to some really nice reprints of mostly-lost classics, 2014 gave us “The Bar Book” as a manual for beginning bartenders, “Liquid Intelligence” for experimental cocktail bartenders, and “Death & Co.” as an expanded version of the classic cocktail recipe book/bar profile.
Flipping back through Death & Co, I felt myself struck by a strong sense of deja vu — and not just because I referenced the book considerably after it was released. A quick look at the title page and acknowledgements confirmed what I had suspected: it shared and editor and publisher with Meehan’s Bartender Manual, and the two books share similar layouts, graphic design, fonts, and, at times, similar focuses. Both have the same clean look, with illustrations blended with photography; chapter headings in both are usually accompanied by clean line drawings, and ingredients and tools are usually illustrated rather than photographed. While Death & Co is probably a more impressive artifact (what with its large, unique size and softly textured cover) to have on your shelf, Meehan’s book is cleaner and more functionally arranged, with more attractive photography and a more logical layout. Both books have solid indexes. Despite the gorgeous photography in the Bartender Manual, it fits better on a bar shelf (and in a bartender’s hands), while Death & Co strikes me more of a coffee table book.
This brings me to my main issue with the Death & Co book — it feels less functional than many of its contemporaries, or books that have come since. That’s not a huge knock: It comes admirably close to being a one-stop-shop for how to start cocktail bartending. The sections on how to shake & stir are clearly explained, as are the selection of bar tools and instructions on garnishes, but here the use of illustrations rather than multiple clear photographs breaking down every step (like in “The Bar Book” or Kazuo Uyeda’s “Cocktail Techniques”) work against the book. That said, I guess it was 2014, Youtube existed. The cocktail list is uniquely Death & Co, and unlike some of its contemporaries they don’t do a great job of explaining why they use particular brands of spirits outside of the unique ones mentioned early on (or offer alternatives). The sidebars featuring regulars and their favorite drinks function as a nice way to break up the standard structure (like the interviews in Meehan’s later book), but the inclusion of recipes with them seems redundant.
The book is celebration of Death & Co., and it strikes me now that as such it is more for admirers of that renowned New York bar or for people who want to learn how their bartenders do what they do (without necessarily copying them). Most of the drinks on the list are too complicated for the home bartender, and I would argue too specific to the style of Death & Co. The three pages of imaginary conversation about inventing a drink drive that home to me — it’s not about breaking down a few specific drinks on the menu and explaining why they are the way they are, it’s about imagining you are part of that cool bar team. That said, I wouldn’t knock the book out of a fledgling bartender’s hands, because its discussion of mechanics are really solid and the chapter that follows on creating drinks is pretty great, though I do wish they had come up with a better name for the standard “substitute similar ingredient” process than “Mr. Potato Head drinks.” In the interest of being an honest reviewer, I do have to recognize I come at this book from both a state of hindsight and from a relatively unique perspective of someone who has read a lot of booze books — Meehan’s book, which this is almost a dry run of, is strongly in my mind, and I find that the cocktail classifications in Gary/Gaz Regan’s “Joy of Mixology” did a better job of influencing how I thought of drink families and learned to substitute ingredients into ratios, but I did read the latter well before Death & Co. The best part of the recipe chapter, and the part I find myself returning to, is the last few sections, where they present multiple variations on classic cocktails. Taken as a whole this section can teach a lot, while I do wish more of the bartenders used their short intros to explain why certain specific spirit brands were chosen in their variation, particularly rarer ones.
Lucas’s Last Word: While revolutionary for its time, Death & Co has been surpassed in most ways by its descendant, Meehan’s Bartender Manual. It is a solid book for intermediate bartenders, and a pretty and potentially useful object d’art for fans of the titular bar. That said, it does have some unique sections and a lot of unique drinks (depending on your enjoyment of the finicky, tons-of-ingredients Death & Co style), and serves as a useful companion for a lot of other books, and it could be a perfectly functional “only bar book you own,” even though there are better choices. I would recommend checking it out at a library or flipping through it before making the investment.