7:00pm, Monday: No fanfare surrounds this world-famous bar, just the host, leaning against the wood paneled facade. Although considered a speakeasy by some, I wouldn’t add it into that category—there’s no secret codes spoken into discriminate phone booths, no opening of unmarked doors in the back of art galleries. The bar is too celebrated to hide.
One of Death & Co.’s achievements is the atmosphere. Black-walled and flickering, the space is small and focused: marbled surfaces, petite chandeliers, one line of banquettes dimly lit. Glowing at the forefront: the spirits, exhibited like a shrine.
Leather-bound and illustrated, the menu offers shaken and stirred options in every major category: Brandy, Rum, Agave, and so forth, but Vodka isn’t one of them (typical among the city’s leading cocktail bars). Contrary to their name, Death & Co. has breathed a lot of life into the cocktail scene. Often, experiences of ordering bespoke cocktails at Attaboy, Little Branch, or elsewhere lead back to Death & Co. originals.
It takes a while to narrow it down, but I go for “Crimson & Clover” off the Agave menu first. Nester Soledad Mezcal, Perry’s Tot Gin, Dolin Blanc, Raspberry, Lime, Egg White ($15). Feather-light, the drink is perfectly balanced, the sweet and tang of the fruit cut through the smoke.
Stronger yet is “Aces & Eights,” also of the Agave order. Stirred, the drink is built on El Tesoro Resposado, Meletti Amaro, Galliano Ristretto, Vanilla, Mole Bitters ($16). Served in a double rocks on a chuck of ice, it’s citrusy, bitter. The undercurrent of mole gives the drink a chocolate aftertaste. The only other thing I want out of this is a hint of spice to play up citrus and mole; as it is, the cocktail is worth savoring, and I drink slow.
Paging backwards for rum, I end this visit with “Touch of Evil.” El Dorado 8yr, Appleton Signature, Cynar, Fernet Branca, Luxardo Maraschino, Saline ($15). “That’s even more bitter,” the bartender says.
“Let’s keep it that way,” I tell him.
Served up with a twist, the cocktail’s texture reminds me of a red Santa Barbara wine. It has a tang of sweetness from the Luxardo, a shy menthol quality from the Fernet. It’s a balancing act that relies on all parts—one wrong measurement and the whole thing could go wrong. After a pause, the drink melds, relaxes a little, sweetens up.
Overall, the experience is straightforward, relaxed, deliciously-dead-serious.