The Man Behind the Craft Cocktail Craze

Words by Ryan Waterfield 

The country is in the throes of a craft cocktail craze and we have David Kaplan to thank for that. A product of Jackson Hole, Kaplan has turned his passion for the well-made cocktail into a thriving business around the country. Cheers to that.

What do you get when you mix a Jackson Hole native, a fine arts degree from a university in upstate New York, and a lifelong and genetically-endowed penchant for entertaining? Throw in a job working behind the soda fountain at the Jackson Hole pharmacy on Town Square as a grommet and a fascination for the romance of spirits for good measure.

Well, in David Kaplan’s case, you decidedly do not get a bartender. In fact, beyond that one stint serving milkshakes, malted or not, to Jackson’s sugar brigade, Kaplan has never tended to any bar. What you do get is one of the hottest craft cocktail bars in New York City, Death & Co. A carefully curated bar on East 6th Street in the East Village with a speakeasy feel, Death & Co was Kaplan’s chance to put his artistic side to work with his hospitality side. The bar that Kaplan created became the center of craft cocktail culture. But that’s not all you get. Not by a long shot.

This is David Kaplan, perpetual over-achiever, we’re talking about so having the hot spot in NYC by his early twenties wasn’t enough. He and his partner Alex Day decided that they had learned too many good lessons from the process of dreaming, designing, outfitting, and opening Death & Co to let that experience go to waste. So they created a company called Proprietors LLC and with that, they set about opening more bars and the drinking public is better off for it. As Kaplan says, “It’s not possible to serially open bars—unless you are spending other people’s money and are doing it for them on a consulting basis.” So before he was 30 years old, Kaplan and his partner started Proprietors, a bar consulting business with a main office in L.A. But Proprietor projects are all over the country—from NYC, to Vegas, to Jackson Hole and L.A.

What does Proprietors LLC do? When it comes to cocktails, what don’t they do? They have helped craft the craft cocktail craze across the country. They are a group of hospitality professionals with one mission, “To further cocktail culture.” And to do this, Kaplan and his two partners (Alex and Devon Tarby) are one-part mad scientists in a lab mixing to find the perfect flavor profiles, one-part architects of world-class, cocktail-centric beverage programs for their clients, and one-part Don Drapers of the bar world as they market and manage the Proprietors-developed bars. They are definitely shaken, not stirred.

I caught up with Kaplan while he was in Vegas working with one of their “partners.” They don’t look for clients—well, they don’t look for business period. Business opportunities search them out. They work with partners who have similar visions—a vision that puts at the center of the whole endeavor the customer experience and the quality of the cocktail. And adventure, and pleasure, and curiosity, and just plain good taste.

Let’s rewind. Death & Co, the bar, sparked a lot of things: controversy among neighbors of the bar on East Sixth in Manhattan; a book by the same name—Death & Co—is lauded as “the definitive guide for craft cocktail culture.” The title, just like the name of the bar, is striking. The black cover is a bit intimidating, but there’s something seductive about it. (Is it the font? The feel of the book? The secrets it holds? You decide.) And because irony is always cool, the name comes from a Prohibition Era anti-drinking campaign. This is THE book to give to any of your at-home mixologists.

About what drew Kaplan to working in the world of cocktails, “I was always enamored with spirits. Not in your typical teenager-raid-the-parents’-liquor-cabinet-and-get-sauced sort of enamored (although there was some of that). I was fascinated by the bottles themselves and what they had in them. The labels told stories. Where the spirit came from, what it was made of. There was romance to it. And there seemed to be no real rules. You could make alcohol out of nearly anything. It was alchemy to me and that got me.” He admits that he hadn’t developed a palate for the finer craft cocktails early in life—no, “Back then, embarrassingly enough, my go-to cocktail was a Captain Morgans and Coke.” Well, he’s certainly graduated.

To be sure, that’s not what you’ll find Kaplan enjoying these days. Take one look at the book Death & Co or check out the Proprietor LLC website for some inspiration if your cocktail routine needs a little (or a lot) jazzing up. The Death & Co menu features roughly 50 original cocktails and changes roughly four times a year. With names like “Awkwardly Tied Tongue” (a gin drink featuring Fords, Pineapple, Cinnamon, Orgeat, Fernet, and Lime), “Sound and Fury” (a tequila drink with Calle-23 Blanco, Ancho Reyes, Red Bell Pepper, and Lime), or The Long Con (Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy, Linie Aquavit, Don’s Spices, Isestegi Cider, and Lemon), your cocktail options just got much sexier and more literary (which is, by definition, sexier).

When I ask what cocktail he would choose if he could only drink one kind of cocktail for the rest of his days, Kaplan answers (somewhat reluctantly because that sounded like too much of a burden to bear), “Martini.” Or was it a “Manhattan?” Bad reporter. I should have written that down. But I was on my way to have a cocktail with a friend. Because the craft cocktail craze is no longer a craze but more of a way of life—and Kaplan and his cronies have had a large hand in that—the cocktails we enjoy as I blissfully forget to write down Kaplan’s last answer, are excellent and unexpected.

So here’s to you David Kaplan, Death & Co, and your merry band of cocktail makers. Cheers.

Rapid Fire with David Kaplan, Captain Cocktail

No bar is complete without… Personality. And that can mean many things. The personality of the customers, the bartenders, the look and feel of the place. A bar should have a distinctive voice.

Bartenders should never… care more about what they are doing than they care about the guest. Back when we got this thing going, we were beating our chests like silly gorillas saying that cocktail culture is so important. But we should never forget that the guest is MORE important.

(In a frazzled, panicky voice) WAIT! Don’t take my… (laughter, we just caught the Jedi master of the cocktail world off-guard. Not bad for a slow Thursday)… As shallow as it sounds—don’t take my flight status away. I live my life flying around for this business, so if you took my platinum flight status away, I’d cry like a baby.

When in Jackson Hole… Get outside. Ride the tram to the top of the mountain, no matter how you have to get down—whether you ski down or tram down, get outside, get up high, and get some perspective.