Pegu Club, PDT, Employees Only—there are a handful of New York bars that defined the city’s scene in the early days of the craft cocktail revival and have remained successful and relevant ever since. By any standard, Death & Co is on that short list. Since its opening in 2007, it has been a training ground for generations of skilled bartenders who went on to make their own mark in the cocktail world. But only after more than 10 years in business did the partners decide to expand, with Death & Co Denver opening in the city’s stunning Ramble Hotel in May of 2018.
It isn’t the partners’ first foray outside New York, with Los Angeles projects including The Walker Inn and The Normandie Club, along with many others they’ve consulted on. But Denver is the first expansion of the Death & Co brand itself. (Death & Co Los Angeles is slated to open in the late summer of 2019.)
It’s not alone. Other high-profile bars are embarking on their own careful expansions, one city at a time, like Miami’s Broken Shaker opening locations in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York; and Manhattan classic Employees Only now established in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Miami, Singapore and Sydney.
Even so, this seems to be an unusual move for Death & Co. A Denver hotel lobby isn’t the most obvious expansion for a cozy New York cocktail bar. Why Colorado? And beyond the name, beyond the ownership, what makes this Denver bar a Death & Co?
Partners Alex Day, David Kaplan, Ravi DeRossi and Devon Tarby didn’t come by the decision easily, workshopping 10 cities before landing on Denver. “The city has a phenomenal food and beverage scene and cultural institutions, and the craft community there is amazing,” says Kaplan, citing the Mile High City’s many coffee roasters, distilleries and breweries. “People are generally happy, outgoing and social.”
The emerging downtown neighborhood of RiNo (River North) had already caught their eye when Ryan Diggins, the owner of The Ramble Hotel, the neighborhood’s first high-end hotel, happened to give them a call in hopes of a collaboration. Their partnership—Death & Co manages much of the hotel’s food and beverage, in addition to the marquee bar—evolved from there.
Superficially, the two bars couldn’t be more different. The Denver space is a soaring light-filled hotel lobby; Manhattan’s is dark, intimate, hidden-feeling. Kaplan saw that as an opportunity to look below the surface at what really defined his bar’s brand. “We really wanted to show that Death & Co is more than just a dark, enveloping cocktail bar in New York’s East Village,” he says. “So the choice to bring it to an expansive, bright and airy space was a fun challenge.”
Kaplan points to a number of design threads that link the spaces. “The prominent white marble bar, the heft and feel of the menus, the dark wood, the copper accents and the warmly lit, stepped backbar all hark back to the original without being too heavy handed,” he says.
But most important to the team is the caliber of hospitality and cocktails—a professionalism in service that Kaplan terms “earned informality” and an extensive, ambitious cocktail list. The drinks themselves are unique to Denver, as is the menu’s aesthetic and style.
Always intending to grow the Denver project as an independent space, the partners hired locally but spent considerable time in the city themselves, their presence helping to establish continuity. Tyson Buhler was promoted from head bartender at the New York bar to the national beverage director. Buhler, Day and Kaplan spent six months in Denver leading up to the opening, renting a company apartment for the year and building a local team from the ground up.
A name so universally known in the cocktail world brings opportunities but also high expectations. That name might have gotten the Denver Death & Co off the ground, with extensive press, both locally and nationally. In Kaplan’s words, “That helps for the first visit, but we have to earn every return after that.”
By a number of metrics—sales, staff, public perception—Death & Co has been an early success. Kaplan attributes this to a few factors. “We have a clear vision for Death & Co as a brand, but we remain adaptable and welcome change. We hired brilliant people who share our core values. And we found the right partner (well, landlord) in Ryan [Diggins].”
The bar isn’t by any means finished, the partners believe. But neither is their New York bar, even after more than a decade. According to Kaplan, “Success in this business is in the continued pursuit, not the end point of complacency.”