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A Return to Good Spirits
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Los Angeles, CA

A Return to Good Spirits

Matthew Belanger on closing, reopening, and what’s next for Death & Co. Los Angeles.

On a warm April night, guests drift down the stairs at Death & Co. Los Angeles to the underground Arts District cocktail enclave. They walk past the inscription on the wall that reads, “To those who shun the night, we tip our hat. To those who shine after dusk, we offer a warm embrace,” joining the gentle hum of chatter that reverberates around the dark, candlelit space. 

The marbled bar that stretches the length of the room once again sees the stems of martini glasses and the sturdy bottoms of highballs on its surface as expert bartenders prepare the boozy concoctions Death & Co. is so revered for. Eager bargoers order off a menu that reads as a tome of cocktails, with pages divided into sections labeled “Fresh & Lively” and “Boozy & Honest,” with a selection of seasonal food to pair. You can almost forget that for over a year, this very space sat empty, with only the ghosts of past revelry to keep the bar company.

Matthew Belanger, General Manager of Death & Co in Los Angeles

After opening in late 2019 as the third Death & Co. outpost following New York and Denver, the Los Angeles location had a brief run before pandemic restrictions forced them to shut their doors. In the months since, while indoor dining was not allowed, they extended their setup to include the sidewalk out front, doling out drinks from a limited menu. But on April 11, as Los Angeles lifted its restrictions, Death & Co. followed suit. 

Prior to their indoor reopening, we spoke with Death & Co. Los Angeles’ General Manager Matthew Belanger about building a menu, reopening, and what’s next for the bar.

The following conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.

How do you approach building a drink? Where do you start?

It really depends. I try to start with the ingredients we’re trying to showcase, both on a produce level, as well as on a spirits level. It’s tasting those things, thinking about how they interact, and what the best way to showcase them is. [For example], if it’s a bottle of gin I particularly like the flavor of, [it’s considering] what pairs well with those flavors. Sometimes if we’re getting into [a particular season]—summer, for instance—where there is a particular bounty of produce, especially here in Southern California, it’s tasting that ingredient, thinking about what pairs well with it and what is going to showcase the ingredient, and then letting the creativity go from there.

Especially when some things come around every year, it’s like, “How do I explore this in a way that keeps it new, keeps it fresh?” It’s trying to balance those two things and the accessibility of some of these ideas with something that still feels exciting and creative to us after doing 20 or so menus as part of the team of Death & Co.

Some of the drinks on the current menu at Death & Co. are based off of traditional archetypal drinks like an old fashioned or a gimlet. Are these legacy formulas something you take inspiration from?

I don’t know if we’re necessarily thinking about utilizing those archetypes more than it’s almost second nature for us. We have a book that was published about how we think about reducing [all these drinks] to the archetypes that are the closest or the best umbrella representation of all of these things. 

When it comes to constructing a menu, we definitely think about that. I’m thinking about having these archetypes represented based on what our guests want.

It’s not so much about each individual thing. I don’t necessarily want this [drink] to be like an old fashioned, but when you’re looking at the menu and the big picture, I have to have something that is sort of in that [category], or sort of like a refreshing tequila drink. 

We’ve now done this long enough that we just understand what people are looking for. It’s threading the needle of what the expectation is on the part of the guests and what still seems creative to us. So using those archetypes, in a way, is helpful to make sure we’re meeting the needs of people who are going to come in and drink these drinks.

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Kingsland Gimlet

Watermelon curry is an intriguing traditional dish from Rajasthan (“Land of Kings”) in northwestern India—the dish which was the inspiration for this drink. Chef Floyd Cardoz used to serve a version of this dish at Tabla in Manhattan, which is where I first heard of the combination. Watermelon is so ubiquitous on summer cocktail menus, I thought it would be a fun way to spin on the flavor, as well as a thematically appropriate combination for a drink featuring a London Dry-style gin.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 oz. Ford’s Gin
  • 0.5 oz. Ramazzotti Rosato
  • 0.25 oz. Wray & Nephew Jamaican Rum
  • 1.25 oz. watermelon syrup
  • 0.75 oz. lime juice
  • 1 dash Bitter End Curry Bitters 

Method: Shake, strain

Glass: Double old fashioned glass with block ice

Garnish: Lime wedge

What drew you to bartending?

I was a musician when I moved to New York and just happened to get a job at a bar that had cocktails, not really knowing anything about that whole world. I really gravitated toward the opportunity to be creative and have authorship of a drink that you can hand to somebody, witnessing their reaction to something you created. 

Feeding off of that energy is, in many ways, very similar to performance—whether it’s music or acting or anything else. I think I gravitated toward this work because you get the same kind of immediate feedback from your audience.

How do you feel like you’ve grown as a bartender during your time with Death & Co.? 

I definitely feel like I’ve grown and changed a lot in the six or seven years of working for Death & Co. We are very collaborative in the way that we try and compose these things. That’s sadly hard to accomplish in the current climate. Even still, I wouldn’t consider anything done until I … offered it to somebody else and got some feedback. In doing that, we improve each other. 

You learn about other people’s palates versus yours. You try to get better at creating something that is satisfying to the majority of your guests and meets the needs people have. And it satisfies your own need to be creative, to create something new and improve upon something else.

False Alarm

I’ve always been a big fan of som tam, the traditional Lao green papaya salad. This cocktail marries the culinary tradition of those flavors with the spirits of Central America and the Caribbean, where the papaya is thought to have originated.

Ingredients:

  • 1.25 oz. Cimarron Blanco Tequila
  • 0.5 oz. St. George Green Chile Vodka
  • 0.25 oz. Clairin Sajous
  • 0.75 oz. papaya syrup
  • 0.75 oz. lime juice
  • 1 dash Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub

Method: Shake

Glass: Pilsner with crushed ice

Garnish: Lime wheel and papaya candy

What distinguishes Death & Co. Los Angeles from the other locations?

The hope is for the creative output of those places to exist in dialogue with the people who come to visit the bar and the community we serve. 

To the extent that all these things are specifically available here in terms of produce, we like to make use of that and to fold that into our program, because it’s an advantage we have over operating in New York or in Denver. We can get most things in those places, but it’s a lot closer at hand here. Any produce there may spend 12 to 24 hours on a truck before you get to use it.

We try to make use of and showcase the bounty of agricultural resources we have at our disposal here. And also in terms of products that are produced here in California. California as a state is the biggest market for liquor in the U.S., so there are liquor and spirits we’re able to purchase here that you just can’t get in other places. Whether it’s mezcal or a weird California brandy, there’s a lot of different stuff. We look at both ends of that spectrum to try and create something here that you feasibly couldn’t really create in Denver or New York.

Low Season

This one is less directly inspired by a dish and more generally by a juxtaposition of flavors I think is exciting: the rich, almost chocolatey profile of Westward Whiskey, nutty, tropical coconut, and the savory spice and cilantro of Oakland Spirits Co.’s Tradewinds brandy. Elijah Craig’s bourbon helps provide structure and the alcoholic bite you want in an old fashioned-style cocktail.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 oz. Elijah Craig Bourbon
  • 0.5 oz. Westward Whiskey
  • 0.5 oz. Kalani Coconut Liqueur
  • 1 tsp. Tradewinds garam masala spirit
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

Method: Stir, strain

Glass: Sazerac with block ice

Garnish: Orange twist

What does the process of sourcing ingredients for cocktails look like? How has the pandemic affected the producers you work with?

It’s certainly been made more challenging by the pandemic. We’ve seen a lot of small producers or distributors on the produce side close down. West Central Produce was one that we were doing a ton of this with, but it’s no longer business sadly, because last year wasn’t a tenable thing for them to survive. 

Our hope is to find those partners that bring in stuff that is exciting and cool that we can depend on to utilize to the best of our ability. With spirits, there’s a little bit less opportunity to do unique one-offs because of the way the system is set up, but I keep my eyes and ears peeled for new [products]. It’s less about having specific things made just for us than it is about having working relationships with the distributors and suppliers and being open to new stuff they’re bringing in.

One of the things we are really good at across the board is the we pay close attention to producers and importers and what people on the supply side of spirits are excited about. We try to stay on the cutting edge of what those people are bringing in, because we’re excited and passionate about spirits as much as they’re passionate about so many other aspects of this process.

What do these next few months look like from your perspective? What are you looking forward to as Los Angeles reopens?

I’m really excited to get back open here again. Obviously, we still have a long way to go to be back to normal, but even just welcoming people back into the bar here after almost a year of no one having a drink down here is really exciting. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to operate outside on the sidewalk, but I don’t think that’s what anybody thinks about when they think about Death & Co. [I’m] excited to be able to extend the full breadth of that experience to people again. 

And I’m just excited to go visit some other bars and restaurants as they open up and get to experience all that again—to sit down for a nice meal and try somebody else’s cocktail.

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