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My First Great Cocktail Made No Sense Whatsoever

At 24 years old, my dream came true when I got a job at one of the best cocktail bars in New York, Death + Co. But I had no idea what I was doing when I made my first great cocktail there.

by Alex Day
Oct 10 2014, 9:51pm

Dave Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi opened Death + Co. about eight years ago now. At the time, I lived right around the corner from here. I was finishing up college, not sure what I was doing with my life, trying my hand at music again—music management—and God, it was a terrible idea.

In 2007, I was running this bar on the Lower East Side called the Back Room that serves drinks in teacups. I was making lots of money, which was fantastic, and I lived on the corner of St. Marks and Avenue A. It was a prohibition-themed club more than it was a cocktail bar. I'd been tending bar for a few years while I was in college and loved it, but also felt that I was destined for more academic pursuits.

So this bar opened, Death + Co., and I was like "Ah, I'll check it out, I've heard some stuff, it was in the New York Times, whatever. I sit down and meet the bartender, Joaquín Simó, who would later end up being the guy I've worked with the most in my entire career. I asked for a drink that I'd heard of called an Aviation, and he makes me this drink, and then it was this moment of holy shit. Just these three very, very simple ingredients, and this dude made it so well. And it wasn't just that the drink was really good, or that he was nice—he was accommodating but not stuffy, and the moment felt really right. Hours later, after so many more drinks, I walked away so excited at the prospect that this thing I had been doing for years could exist in a different format, and in a way that had everything to do with craft and care.

I was utterly obsessed with it after that; I vowed to work there. A couple of months later, I met Dave for the first time and convinced him to come down to my bar. Between my first night at Death + Co. and the time that I convinced Dave to visit the bar, I had gone down the rabbit hole. I was 22 years old, reading every book I could find about craft cocktails, running this bar with all of these old club bartenders who thought I was the most obnoxious little puppy, like shut up. I forced them to fresh-press juice every day and have this list of classic cocktails, and everything was jiggered. This bar would do like $15,000 a night in sales; it was gnarly, and they were not amused by me. But I was really, really into it and essentially forced them to do this. When Dave came down, I think I got him drunk enough that he saw some value to me.

He brought [bartender] Phil Ward, who is an odd duck. One of the world's best bartenders. He said hello, and they were basically the only two people in the bar besides me, and Phil opened up the cocktail menu, studied it, looked at the list, closed it, and looked at Dave and said "Okay." He almost didn't even order a drink. It was so hard to read. But I got it.

I was like, are these people serious? They'll let me be here? That responsibility to not mess it up and to live up to their standards was a huge motivator. So I joined the staff, and the way the cocktail menu comes together is that all the bartenders get together periodically with the drinks they've been working on, and they present them to each other, and they tweak the recipes. It's a really interesting collaborative exercise. But the first time it happened while I was there, I had only been on staff for a couple of weeks—if that—and I thought I was just going to observe. But halfway through the tasting, Dave was like, "Okay, your turn." I was thinking, "Nope, not a chance, no way I'm making a drink right now." But I had no choice.

There was a drink I had sort of been thinking about, and I went behind the bar and made it. But it follows no convention of a cocktail. All of the guidelines and concepts that I live by now, like, "a sour formula has roughly this amount of citrus, and this amount of sweetener, and this amount of booze," or the rules of making a martini, or a Manhattan—I knew none of those building blocks and had no idea what I was doing. So I threw some stuff into a glass. It had orange juice, and it was stirred, and it didn't make any sense. But miraculously, it still came out really cool. It was gin, maraschino liqueur, a little bit of yellow Chartreuse—which is always something that a young bartender is interested in—and a quarter ounce of orange juice. And somehow it all comes together. And then Dave named it for me—it's called the Light and Day. The thing is, my last name is Day. That's why it's a bad drink name.

Click here to make the Light and Day.

It's somewhat of a martini but also sort of a sour drink as well. It's a total oddball, but to this day, I look to this recipe and think, I wish I could think that way again. This may be an obnoxious comparison, but you know how the young kid who's learning how to play the guitar and doesn't have any idea of song structure is able to do something that's really cool and kind of uniquely arty? Like, naîve art. Then, when you learn any sort of structure, you begin to put yourself in a box. But it was loosely inspired by the first cocktail that I first had here, for sure. The Aviation. Those are the dominant flavors.

Although the Aviation was the drink that started it all, I haven't had one in a couple of years. I drank so many early on that I reached the point where I was like, ugh, I can't ever do that again. But it changed my whole perspective. Literally a life-changing cocktail. It can happen.

Alex Day is a former bartender and the current co-owner of Death + Co. and Proprietors LLC, along with David Kaplan. Check back next week for an accompanying piece from David.

We're giving away two signed copies of their book Death & Co., available now from Ten Speed Press. Enter below to win!

Alex Day
Death & Co.
David Kaplan