In the Manhattan cocktail realm, which is known to be one of the nation’s most competitive markets, Death & Co. is still renowned for its staff and commitment to craft. Pegu Club veteran Brian Miller has bartended for Death & Co. owners David Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi since the bar’s early days. We recently met in Los Angeles, at a landmark meeting of the Radio Room, and Miller subsequently discussed his background, approach and influences.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist? What’s the difference?
This is a battle that has raged on for some time now and I have usually been on the side of the bartender. I work behind a bar, I tend to the bar, I am a bartender. A mixologist seemed like someone who just created drinks and didn’t really tend bar. But thanks to some enlightening conversations with friends, I have found myself moving towards the center of this discussion. I think perhaps I am both. For the most part I am a bartender – I make drinks, I take care of my customers and do all the thankless tasks that need to get done to make any bar run smoothly. And then there is the side of me that is a mixologist – I “create” drinks, counsel spirits companies and attend posh events. However, I gotta be honest and say that I really don’t care for the term mixologist when it applies to me, I’m just a bartender with a little mixologist thrown in.
How did you become so interested in cocktails?
In a way I always have been. But it was when I worked with Jerri Banks at Lamu that I became inspired. She opened a door to me that I never knew existed and I went running in. I haven’t looked back since.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
Stealing sips from my Dad’s martini during his neighborhood cocktail parties. He’d built a little bar in the basement of our home that resembled a little shack with a cedar shingle roof and everything. Friends would come over and as they talked and set their drinks down, I would sneek a sip when they weren’t looking.
What was your first bartending job?
A small bistro in the West Village that just served wine and beer, called Grove. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy.
How did the Death & Co. opportunity come about?
It was Phil Ward who opened the door for me there. We had been working together at Pegu for a year and half when we both decided it was time to move on. Phil found a home first at D&C. I thought I had found a home at a new club in Little Italy, however they decided to not to hire me at the last minute. Thankfully Phil was there to pick me and the rest is as they say history.
Do you have any cocktail mentors?
There are so many bartenders I have met that I would call mentors.
Who are they, and what did they teach you?
I learn a little something from everyone I cross paths with. Two big ones are Murray Stenson and Ben Dougherty from my old hometown of Seattle. Murray is one of the most respected bartenders I know. He is a consummate professional and everything I could hope to be behind a bar. Ben gave me the best advice I ever got when I first started slinging drinks at Pegu and was completely overwhelmed by the new world I just entered. He said, “Brian, work service and be humble.” I’ve never forgotten that. The there are two more guys, one alive, one dead who have been a real inspiration to me and that is Jeff Beachbum Berry and Don the Beachcomber. Don is the inspiration for my love of Tiki cocktails and the Bum has been my guide to the land of Tiki. I can’t thank each of these gentlemen enough for helping me out.
Who are some other bartenders or mixologists who you respect?
How much room do you have? God knows I will leave people out and for that I am sorry but here it goes (and in no particular order): Cabell Tomlinson, Phil Ward, Katie Stipe, Joaquin Simo, Alex Day, Thomas Waugh, Sammy Ross, Mickey McIlroy, Matty Gee, Michael Madrusan, Sasha Petraske, TJ Siegal, Toby Maloney, Lynnette Marrero, Audrey Saunders, De Pedro, Kenta Goto, Jim Meehan, Jim Kearns, Dale De Groff, Dave Wondrich, Gary Regan, Julie Reiner, Martin Cate, Marcos Tello, Erick Castro, Eric Alperin, Kacy Fitch, Damiano Coren, Massimo D’Addezio, Charles Vexenet, Jorge Meyer, Angus Winchester, Richie Boccato, Giuseppe Gonzalez, Eben Freeman, Chad Soloman, Kirk Estopinal, Yukiyo Kurihara, Hayden Lambert and many more.
What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at?
My home bar. – and anywhere my friends are at.
What do you think differentiates Death & Co. from other bars in New York?
The staff. Period. End of sentence. Next question.
What’ a great simple cocktail recipe for people to make at home?
2 oz rum
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
-shake & strain into an A/P coupe
-garnish with a lime wedge
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
Like a final meal? A Zombie – no doubt