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Book Review: Death and Co - Modern Classic Cocktails

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Unfortunately, I have never been to Death and Co. In fact, my New York City cocktailing adventures are fairly scant. But after meeting a few East Coast bartenders, the differences in approach were really driven home. While we out on the West Coast thrive on seasonality and locally-sourced ingredients, letting them shine as the spirit rides shotgun, bartenders on the Eastern seaboard focus on boldly pushing the spirit to the forefront, often wielding dual spirits, and buoying cocktails with readymade modifiers. Differences that can be attributed to geography as well as mindsets. Neither is right or wrong, in fact, being able to utilize both ethoi would be ideal, and books like Death and Co.’s serve as the catalyst in that reaction.

I was slightly hesitant to pick up Death and Co: Modern Classic Cocktails, for fear of it being similar to The PDT Cocktail Book. Not because the PDT drinks aren’t tasty - at least the few I’ve replicated are - but because the recipes rely on integral homemade ingredients or tried and true classic cocktails. Either too difficult or too redundant. Who knows, maybe it was me, but I didn’t find much inspiration when thumbing through it on a slow night behind the stick (notable exception: Beer and a Smoke is my go-to michelada now).

Upon opening Death and Co.’s book, after a couple quotes, the reader is greeted with the portentous first line, “Death and Co. is the most important, influential, and oft-imitated bar to emerge from the contemporary craft cocktail movement.” Then the breakdown of a “typical” night at Death and Co. followed by in-house slang. All a little self-aggrandizing, but maybe it’ll be worth it. Short and sweet, but informative, section about different types of spirit, modifiers, and recommended brands, including aquavit and port, with shout-outs to the far and wide, like Ron del Barrillito 3-Star and Galliano l’Autentico. There are your typical tools, how-to-shake, and glassware sections, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing overwrought.

But, the differences are quite striking between Death and Co.’s and PDT’s books. In Death and Co.’s, there’s a chapter on strategies for creating drinks, a chart of flavor pairings, how to evaluate a cocktail, and even a flowchart for when stumped by bartender’s choice. Even for an experienced bartender, these novel parts are illuminating and worth reading. But, honestly, I’m most interested in the recipes.

I do appreciate PDT’s book for one big reason. They were the first to put out a cohesive modern day cocktail guide. When I think of contemporary books – Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, David Wondrich’s Imbibe, or Beachbum Berry’s Remixed – I realize they are all highlighting classics. PDT’s and Death and Co.’s look towards the future. The main difference between those two is, PDT’s is full of homemade ingredients and I usually skip over those. Who wants to make a green tea syrup, hopefully getting it right, to make a cocktail that hopefully tastes great as well? Death and Co.’s cocktails are inventive, straddling the past and present, while using ingredients that are readily available. And the classics aren’t all Aviations and Widow’s Kisses. There’s a Tailspin, Queen’s Park Swizzle, Ping Pong Cocktail and more.

I’m really impressed with the Death an Co. book and would quickly buy it again if I lost it. As far as contemporary cocktail books go, this is the best one yet.

One of my favorites so far –

The Great Pretender (from Death and Co: Modern Classic Cocktails)

2oz Smith & Cross rum

1/2oz pineapple juice

1/2oz lime juice

1/2oz vanilla syrup

barspoon cinnamon syrup

Shake, serve up, no garnish