A Dead Science

by James Boo on February 26, 2009 · 8 comments

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Bars, as a whole, disappoint me. It’s hard to get excited about spending time with friends on a Friday night when you know the transaction cost of doing so will be diving into a melee of sloppy, ritualistic swipes at conversation priced at $5 a half-hearted swig. Not to say that going out to the bar isn’t fun- it depends, of course, on what bar we’re talking about- or that spending time with friends isn’t worth any cost, but more often than not I find my money flying away, leaving me with the unmemorable purchase of a temporary membership in the glowingly dismembered body politic of young adulthood.

More to the point of taste is the fact that most bartenders cannot make a good cocktail. I doubt that there ever was a point in American history at which every bartender followed code for an old fashioned, but asking the typical barkeep today for anything beyond liquor+chaser is almost a guarantee for disappointment. Composed with ballistics grade ingredients and the grace of an assembly line, these drinks too often forsake subtle for sweet, strength for succor.

It’s in this context of industrialized intoxication that the speakeasy has found its conceptual lifeblood renewed in New York City. Basking in the trend of specialty cocktails, these small-scale, labor-intensive bars have invested heavily in human capital and gambled on the appeal of their suave, socially restrained image. So far, this gamble has paid off in spades: Simultaneously romping through the fields of novelty and playing to the artisanal traditions of old fashioned bartenders, the speakeasy revival offers drinkers like me an evening of cocktails and conversation at a pace that exudes the calm that’s hard to find in most bars.

Death and Company - New York City
Death & Company, an East Village favorite with a lovingly elaborate menu, exemplifies the speakeasy approach to drinking. Not as gimmicky as competitors PDT (which you enter through a fake phone booth) and Little Branch (whose front door is entirely nondescript), the entrance to this bar on E. 6th St. is nevertheless steeped in in its own mystique. Constructed of wood that may have splintered from Ulysses S. Grant’s log cabin, Death & Co.’s doors forge a barrier of austerity between New York City and the hardwood atmosphere behind them. Capacity is limited and reservations are not allowed, but if you put your name on the list the bar will call you when a table is free, informing you that you have exactly ten minutes to make it back to its brass sculpted doorhandles before that reprieve is revoked.

Inside, sparsely arranged booths give drinkers room to stretch their legs and savor each other’s company. Barflies can watch Death & Co.’s mixologists assemble their signature drinks with the kind of care I would bestow upon my Lego collection when I was five years old. The bartenders work deliberately and scientifically, tasting their cocktails at each stage of concoction.

Death and Company - New York City Raisin Burn - Death and Company - New York City
Their work culminates in stunning array of drinks imparting almost every flavor imaginable. The Kerala Cocktail, for example, muddles cardamom pods with two kinds of aromatic bitters, fresh pineapple and lemon juice and simple syrup, then blends with rum and bourbon. The result is a bright array of sweet and sour flavors, balanced against the deepness of bourbon and bitters and brought to life by the herbal tinge of cardamom (a hallmark spice of masala chai). The Raisin burn, one of several cocktails made with whole egg, adds currant-infused rye whiskey to East India sherry and full bodied dessert ingredients to produce a layered succession of tastes that could turn a white Russian to white noise. La Dolce Vita, the most mystifying drink I’ve ever imbibed, uses a simple formula of chamomile-infused rye, Campari and St. Germain liqueur to produce a flavor so uniquely elegant that it caused our party to argue at length over how best to anthropomorphize its character. My best attempt was John Maynard Keynes, sitting in his study, writing a trenchant letter to his scholastic colleagues in the midst of the Great Depression.

Unfortunately, the gourmet stylings of the speakeasy carry with them a $13 per drink price tag, making an outing to Death & Company or any of its counterparts more than a strain on even my curmudgeonly desire for an escape from the bar scene. There’s no price tag, however, on inspiration, and with the long awaited cinematic adaptation of Watchmen just over a week away I’ve found a convenient and much less costly way to practice my own brand of mixology while nurturing my more developed brand of geekology. Bacardi beware: the Manhattan Project is well underway.

Death & Company
433 E. 6th St
New York, NY 10079


Joon S. February 27, 2009 at 4:18 am

Ah, New York! I would love to come those speakeasies you write of. Apparently SF and maybe even LA have a few similar places…

Although my interest is in wine, the old mixologist in me is aching again to make libational compositions. I’ll have to move on from the cosmos and the Americanos, of course–

Joon S.

James February 27, 2009 at 4:54 am

Bourbon and Branch in SF is a pretty great speakeasy- it was there I had the Manhattan of a lifetime…

Anonymous February 27, 2009 at 11:06 pm

There’s a new bar opening in Houston soon that seems to have a similar aesthetic and I really can’t wait to try it. Their blog says they will use a lot of homemade bitters and liquers, as well as serving everything in vintage glassware, which I think sounds really cool. I’m certainly known to throw back half a dozen low-quality liquor+mixer drinks in an outing and I’m content with that, but I think old school classic cocktails and other well-made things sound a lot more appealing. I won’t likely be able to afford to patronize this bar with great frequency, but I’m hoping it turns out to be a nice place to go for an occasional indulgence.

Anonymous March 1, 2009 at 3:27 am

If you’re in the L.A. area, a new bar in the stylings of “Little Branch” and “Death & Co.” just opened. It’s called “The Varnish” and it’s remarkable.

Seek it out.

Abby March 2, 2009 at 4:15 am

I have heard of this place where you walk through Griff Dog… a little to cool for me. I actually used to live on 6th. Not anymore…long subway rides for me. These drinks sound amazing, a but pricey but nice for a treat.

James March 2, 2009 at 4:44 am

Anonymous, I’ll definitely check out The Varnish when I pay a visit to my hometown in June. Thanks for the tip!

Abby, that would be PDT (Please Don’t Tell), one of the speakeasies I mentioned in this story. It’s a nice enough place, with one incredible drink (that would be the bacon old fashioned), but overall Death & Co. wipes the floor with it. You and Ric should come by my place next weekend to try the cocktails I’m working on! Unless you have something against bourbon, that is.

Vanessa March 5, 2009 at 3:07 am

If they’re tasting their cocktails the whole time, won’t they get trashed and maybe lend a little backwash? How does that work, exactly?

James March 5, 2009 at 4:04 am


Fortitude and tiny straws (using the finger suction method) are the answer.

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