Alex Day hasn’t worked in the bar industry for long, but he quickly vaulted to the forefront of the Manhattan cocktail movement based on determination and collaboration. He fell for Death & Co. as an early customer and has now been bartending for owners David Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi for over two-and-a-half years. He recently discussed his background, approach and influences over the phone.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
I probably exist in both worlds from time to time. I work behind behind a bar often, and all that entails, including hospitality, serving customers, all the things that go into being a bartender, not just making a complex cocktail or serving spirits. It’s about serving your guest and knowing your business. I also do a fair amount of consulting. That’s mixology more than anything. The term gets bandied around a lot and makes people sound more important, but they both have their place.
How did you become so interested in cocktails?
I was managing a place on the Lower East Side, a club, during college. I was trying to figure out the next stage of my life and visited Death & Co. right when they first opened. I got my first experience with an Aviation cocktail, which most people know is a very enlightening experience. I fell in love with it. I met Joaquin Simo, who is my co-worker now. I went back to my bar, forced my staff to do fresh juices and built a cocktail program. I realized I love the bar industry, hunkered down, put gears to it and here I am now.
Where’d you go to school, and what was your major?
I went to NYU and I was able to do a cool individualized study program under the banner of European Studies. I wrote my thesis on Russian Organized Crime in the Czech Republic.
Did your major help you as a bartender?
Definitely. With my interest in history and the nature of civilization, there are a lot of parallels in the cocktail world, with Spirits, wine, beer and food. That interest has helped me in this industry, which references so many periods simultaneously.
How did this opportunity come about for you?
After visiting Death & Co. quite a bit, I convinced Dave Kaplan to visit me at my bar. I got him nice and drink and convinced him to give me a position there. I think probably because I was the only person on staff younger than him.
What differentiates Death & Co. from other bars?
We pay a lot of attention to detail. We’re given an arena where we can really go after things we believe are important in a cocktail. We’re given the opportunity to use any spirit we want, any ingredients we can. It is essentially our bar as bartenders. Having that autonomy and creative freedom creates a special environment. The level of expertise behind the bar at Death & Co. is one of the highest in the industry. It’s a small place, which helps us be so focused…Some of the best cocktail bartenders I know have started out as barbacks, at rock and roll bars, pouring beers, shots of whiskey, learning how to interact with customers…most of us have management experience too, so it’s cool to work in an environment where everyone’s so professional.
How often does the menu change at Death & Co., and what does it depend upon?
We are not limited to season, but tend to change every 4-5 months. It really depends on our own creativity and where it’s taking us…the process for us is pretty cool. We work on things individually. We all consult on the side, so we are constantly working on new drinks. We meet and present our drinks after meeting and tweaking over 3-4 months. We get pretty drunk, and it’s a raucous good time, but the day’s spent on putting together the feel, the composition of the menu. They’re all good drinks, but does it make sense as a larger whole? That’s such a fun process.
Are there certain signature drinks you feel like you’ve become known for at Death & Co.?
I really pride myself on having the experience with a customer and figuring out what’s best for them. What my favorite drink is, or what I’m working on now might not fit for them…I’m just as happy as making somebody else’s drink. A signature Alex Day drink, I don’t know if that exists. I kind of hope it doesn’t.
Do you have a first cocktail memory?
If it can count, I grew up in a house that was very much beer and wine, never had spirits. The one exception was my mom having a gin and tonic in the summer. My grandpa and grandma would come over in the summer. My grandpa would make a martini with a couple dashes of vermouth and olives. He loved the ritual. I remember being 13 or 14…Grandpa sneaked me a sip of his afternoon martini on the back deck, and it was not pleasant, not pleasant at all.
Do you have any cocktail mentors?
Definitely. I’ve been lucky enough to work all over the place while working at Death & Co, including off and on at Milk & Honey. Sasha Petraske, Richie Boccato, Michael McIlroy, Sam Ross and Michael Madrusan all have been huge influences. Phil Ward took me under his arm and pushed me to never settle. Brian Miller. Definitely want to make sure I mention Joaquin Simo along with the other D&C guys. Thomas Waugh, who moved from San Francisco and was head bartender at Alembic. I worked on the opening staff of Tailor and Eben Freeman has been a huge influence on my of breaking out of the classicist mold. Evan’s approach to cocktails is sometimes more cerebral and a little bit more adventurous. Then, every bartender I know in this country who I spend a lot of time with. Audrey Saunders has been nothing but incredibly gracious. Murray Stinson from the Zig Zag Café in Seattle. Erick Castro. Ryan Fitzgerald.
What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at around town?
I really like The Clover Club. Little Branch is maybe the coolest room in the world. My night always ends at Milk & Honey. Lewis 649. Aaron Reese is doing some great drinks there. I went to Prime Meats for the first time last night. We’re not lacking great places to get great cocktails in New York.
Does New York have better cocktails than other cities?
It’s very different. Having traveled around quite a bit in the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to see what’s happening around the country. There are certain parts of New York that are exceptional. San Francisco was enlightening, not this quiet cocktail church. It’s all about context. I know plenty of people who have gone to bars that I think are the best in the world and didn’t enjoy their drinks. Still, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I think New York has the best drinks.
What’s a great simple cocktail recipe for people to make at home?
I have two things that I generally make the most of at home. An Americano if you want a drink but want to get drunk. It’s 1 ounce of Campari, 1 ounce sweet vermouth – I love Antica in there – in a highball with ice, fill with seltzer and garnish with an orange wedge. I probably drink a Daiquiri more often than I’m not drinking a daiquiri. I like 2 ounces of white rum – oscillate between Flor de Cana 4 year or Havana Club blanco – 1 ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice – not an hour old, straight out of the juicer – and ¾ ounce simple syrup.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
A very well made martini, I’ve gone full circle since my grandpa’s martini. A good boozy 3:1 martini with Beefeater dry gin, a dash of Dolan dry vermouth, a dash of orange bitters and a twist