For renowned cocktail bar concept Death & Co., the old adage about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger has been proven true over the last couple years. In the face of unprecedented struggles for bars and restaurants during the Covid-19 pandemic, Death & Co., like so many others, shut down. Now, as normalcy returns, the company is back with bold growth plans for the near future, growth plans that include expansion of its flagship cocktail haven Death & Co. as well as new concepts and further growth of its online marketplace and prepared cocktails.
“I said it many times throughout the pandemic and I’ve found it be very true: If you were able to navigate and remain open or reopen [over the last few years], then you’re a better operator today for it,” says Death & Co. founder David Kaplan. “We know our business better than we ever have. We’re more nimble, more responsive and proactive, and we’re able to find better margins in spite of the challenges we face.”
Death & Co. has indeed embraced agility. By the end of 2019 the bar concept had three units—its flagship original bar in New York City’s East Village neighborhood and two offshoots in Denver and Los Angeles. The company also had ambitious growth plans that came to a hard stop when Covid-19 hit in 2020. But now that pandemic restrictions are mostly in the rearview, growth is back on the horizon. Death & Co.’s parent company Gin & Luck, which was founded in 2018 by Kaplan—who serves as CEO—and several bar business partners, opened its first food-focused venture in 2022 with the debut of The Danforth in Portland, Maine. This summer Death & Co. will add a bar in Washington, D.C. and Gin & Luck will add projects in Aspen, Colorado and Savannah, Georgia. Gin & Luck’s total revenue is expected to top $17 million this year, with beverage sales comprising a whopping 75% of that total.
“Death & Co. will continue to be our primary focus and we’re looking to grow the brand to a number of major cities throughout the U.S. and, hopefully one day, abroad,” Kaplan says. “We define our company mission as ‘We create experiences and connect people through cocktail-anchored hospitality.’ Cocktails are the nucleus of everything we do and always will be.”
The pandemic wreaked havoc on the hospitality world and Death & Co. was by no means immune to the industry’s struggles. Kaplan says all of his venues shut down at one point, adding that the company had to let go of the majority of its staff, too, save for a handful of core personnel. To survive during the pandemic years, the company increased its online presence through its digital marketplace and social media and also launched a line of pre-mixed canned cocktails in partnership with The Craft Spirits Cooperative.
The Death & Co. marketplace lists drinkware, bar essentials, apparel, and home goods. The drinkware section offers Death & Co. branded glassware, as well as high-end specialty glasses and a collection of limited-edition mugs ($18-$120), while bar essentials range from shakers and flasks to recipe books, towels, and coasters ($8-$175). A variety of branded shirts ($25-$85) and wall banners ($36-$70) are also for sale.
The market website’s sibling, Drinkfellows.com, is the hub for Death & Co.’s RTDs, as well as a full roster of spirits from The Craft Spirits Cooperative. The Death & Co.-branded RTDs include Moonsail Fizz, a Bimini gin-based 12.2% abv drink with flavors of passionfruit, vanilla, and lime; Aurora Highball, a Woody Creek vodka-based 8% abv drink enhanced with pear brandy, sake, green tea, and mint; and the Ranger Buck, a Woody Creek Bourbon-based 11% abv drink mixed with ginger and birch flavors ($5-$6 a 200-ml. can; $20-$25 a 4-pack of cans). The RTDs were created by Death & Co. partner Devon Tarby and The Craft Spirits Cooperative’s founder, Romina Scheufele. Post pandemic, even though all of Death & Co.’s and Gin & Luck’s venues are open today, the pre-mixed cocktails and online market remain active.
“We’re working on a range of new offerings on the DrinkFellows and ready-to-drink cocktail front, and we have an amazing lineup of products and collaborations coming to the Death & Co. marketplace,” Kaplan says. “Our business model has largely remained the same. All of our businesses are now healthy, profitable, and fully staffed.” He adds that the company has increased its pay rates and benefits packages to attract and retain bar staff in the wake of labor shortages and the post-pandemic staffing slump.
For the most part, business is fully back across Death & Co. and Gin & Luck. “We’ve seen business return to the levels seen before the pandemic, if not stronger,” says Gin & Luck food and beverage director Tyson Buhler. “It’s not without its challenges, but we’re seeing the industry change with rising prices and rising wages, both of which were a long time coming. That will hopefully lead to more stable businesses and workplaces.”
Death & Co.’s reputation is centered around its bar business and has been since the venue first opened on December 31, 2006 in New York City. More than 15 years later, the cocktail menu remains a key driver across all three locations. The bars in New York, Denver, and Los Angeles each look and feel different, and feature different menus, but their dedication to mixed drinks and top-notch mixology keeps them unified. “Death & Co. is still very much a cocktail destination,” Kaplan says, adding that the local staff at each bar creates the cocktail menus for their location with no crossover across units.
Taking it further, Buhler says the cocktails are what attract people to the bars. “Cocktails truly are the center of our business,” he adds. “They’re the vehicle that gets people through the doors to then create meaningful and memorable experiences for guests. Our focus is creating menus that guests are excited about.”
In New York, Death & Co.’s menu spans more than 20 pages, with drinks divided into categories like Light & Playful, Elegant & Timeless, and Boozy & Honest. Standouts include the Lunch Money, made with Mal Bien mezcal, Cruzan Black Strap rum, Amaro Dell’Etna liqueur, Miracle Mile Redeye bitters, pasilla chile, and pineapple and lime juices, and the Makkuro, a blend of Mars Iwai 45 whisky, Mugi Hokka shochu, Fernet Vallet aperitivo, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, and eucalyptus (cocktails are $19-$50). The bar offers Death & Co.’s canned RTDs too ($16), as well as non-alcoholic cocktails ($15), beer ($8-$13 a bottle or can), wine ($16-$23 a glass), and snacks ($10-$22). At Death & Co. Denver, the menu tops 30 pages and is similarly organized by drink style and strength, with a full roster of creative cocktails ($17-$24), while in Los Angeles, the menu lists 30-plus specialty drinks ($18-$25).
“Cocktails, and specifically menu cocktails, are the main driver of our business,” Buhler says. He points to drinks made with Tequila, mezcal, and American whiskey as the fastest-moving these days. “Our guests are far more adventurous than even just a few years ago,” Buhler adds. “Less guests seem to stick to a favorite spirit or favorite cocktail, and are instead going out to bars to try new things.” He notes, though, that for the first time in a while, an off-menu drink is gaining ground at Death & Co. bars—the Espresso Martini. Buhler says guests are once again calling for this coffee-based drink, even though it’s not listed on any of the company’s menus.
Each of Death & Co.’s bars offer wine and beer, though neither category is a significant player. Buhler says wine drinkers at the bars are continuing to be adventurous and try new varietals, while beer consumers often ask for IPAs, followed by lagers and pilsners. Food is a growing component across the board. Each of the Death & Co. bars has a food menu, with the Denver location boasting the most encompassing kitchen. Denver’s food list spans snacks like chips and dip and crudité alongside larger plates like fried chicken, baked cavatappi, and a bison strip loin steak ($8-$46).
Beyond the bar concepts, food is the primary driver at The Danforth in Portland, Maine. A rising New England dining destination, The Danforth offers upscale American fare, ranging from pigs in a blanket and beef tartare to swordfish and Marsala chicken entrées (food is $4-$57), complemented by lengthy list of cocktails ($14-$16), roughly 15 beers ($3-$14), and more than 30 wines ($10-$25 a glass; $40-$153 a 750-ml.). “We have great talent in our kitchens and we’re always working to better highlight and showcase the chefs’ work,” Kaplan says. “Food has always been a part of our brand and will always be.”
Death & Co. has grown immensely over the last 15 years. Not only has the concept matured, but every facet behind the scenes has, too. “How we organize our company, run our businesses, measure success, drive our vision, and support our growth strategies—everything we do has radically evolved since we opened our doors in the East Village,” Kaplan says. The creation of parent company Gin & Luck with Kaplan, Alex Day, Devon Tarby, and Ravi DeRossi is a further extension of that growth.
The new Death & Co. in Washington, D.C. is slated to debut this summer in the former Columbia Room bar space in Mt. Vernon Square, marking a new period of growth for the renowned bar brand. Simultaneously, the team is also working on a new cocktail bar concept that it hopes will grow alongside Death & Co., and is currently scouting locations for it in Atlanta and Nashville, Tennessee. Furthermore, Gin & Luck is looking into several hotel deals throughout the country to continue its work in that realm. For the hotel in Aspen, Colorado, Gin & Luck will manage all food and beverage operations on site, as it does for The Ramble Hotel in Denver, where Death & Co. Denver is located. The company has also created a dedicated hotel division called Midnight Auteur through which it’s working on a hotel concept in Georgia with partner Ryan Diggins of The Ramble Hotel. Kaplan says there will be new cocktail-anchored food and beverage brands in each of its hotel ventures going forward. “The year is off to a great start,” Kaplan says. “We’re excited to continue to refine, evolve, and improve everything we do.”