The Washington Post featured new arrival, Death & Co in D.C., the third outpost AAmp has designed for the acclaimed cocktail group. The article tells the story of how AAmp transformed the former (and much loved) Columbia Room into a unique, warm and vibrant bar experience for the city, while paying homage to the previous well-known bar.
Award-winning cocktail bar Death & Co arrives in D.C. July 21
By Fritz Hahn
Update: After publication of this story, Death & Co moved its opening date from July 14 to July 21.
How do you replace D.C.’s most lauded cocktail bar?
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The answer might be: Bring in one of the most lauded cocktail bars in all of America.
Derek Brown’s 2022 decision to close the Columbia Room, a high temple of mixology named Best American Cocktail Bar at the 2017 Spirited Awards and a fixture on “best bars” lists in national publications, surprised many in the D.C. bar scene. The announcement in early 2022 that its Blagden Alley home would be filled by Death & Co, a modern New York City cocktail bar, elicited a similar reaction. Death & Co had previously expanded its footprint to Denver in 2018 and Los Angeles a year later. But its choice to come to Washington, a few years after revered London bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana opened Silver Lyan, his first American outpost, at the Riggs hotel in 2020, seemed to elevate D.C.’s status as a cocktail destination even further. Those of us who spend time perched on D.C. bar stools have long known we have a city full of talented, creative and curious bartenders, and now outsiders are looking to join the scene.
Alex Day, a partner in Death & Co and a former bartender at the New York location, says the group has “a list of questions we ask ourselves when we consider going to a new city.” Does it have a robust food and drink community? How can Death & Co contribute to the community? And, “on a selfish level, do we like spending time in the place?”
Over the years, Day says, the founders of Death & Co have spent plenty of time in D.C. and built a strong relationship with Brown and his partners. A launch party for the first Death & Co cocktail book was held at Eat the Rich, the now-closed Shaw cocktail and oyster bar, for example. With Death & Co temporarily closed during the pandemic, “we used it as an opportunity to look inward,” Day says, which included discussions about expanding to D.C. “We reached out to Derek and said, ‘We’ve always thought about coming to D.C., what do you think?’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t you buy the Columbia Room?’”
Told of this story, Brown laughed and dug up the original email and reply, from August 2021, which suggested getting together to talk about D.C. “I said, ‘Buy me lunch and I’ll give you the keys’ — and then I put, ‘Joke!’ But was it a joke?” he asks, conspiratorially.
Brown insists he didn’t intend to sell Columbia Room when he met with the Death & Co team almost two years ago, but over time, as he realized he wanted to get out of the bar business, he came to understand it would be a natural fit. Death & Co, which opened in the East Village on New Year’s Eve 2006, has won its share of awards, and among the cocktail cognoscenti, it’s known as the birthplace of drinks that have taken their place in the modern cocktail canon, such as the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, the Flor de Jerez and the Naked & Famous. You may not have darkened the door of the original bar, but its influence is felt around the world, including D.C. “They’re the reason I do this,” Brown says, referring to his early visits to Death & Co as “my graduate course” in cocktails.
“They’re one of a kind, and I admire what they do, so it seemed to me to be the perfect handoff. I couldn’t trust the Columbia Room in just anybody’s hands.”
But Death & Co, which is scheduled to open July 21, is not a Columbia Room clone. By removing walls between the former occupant’s discrete spaces to create one airy lounge, the owners have transformed the Columbia Room into something very different. The interior is unrecognizable — except for the large mosaic that was a fixture behind Columbia Room’s showpiece bar. (Day says the preservation of the mosaic is “the first thing” people have been asking him about, but there was never any question of removing it: “We wanted to keep the mural as an homage to the Columbia Room.”) There are tiers of booths facing the long bar, which is topped with white marble and surrounded by soft carpet. The cozy booths, in deep blues and greens, are meant to be “spaces you sink into, and the hours fall away from you,” Day says. Along one wall, below the mosaic, is a row of “Pullman booths,” with compact facing benches that Day describes as “good for one-and-a-half [people] on each side, maybe a cozy four.” Facing the mosaic is a large, round, semiprivate booth for eight, dubbed “the party pod,” with curtains and a mod light fixture, that’s likely to be in demand for special celebrations.
The popular patio bar has also been revamped, with a warm orange banquette under rows of potted plants, and a 12-seat bar counter, which includes a pair of ADA-accessible seats. Wherever you sit, expect the bar to be worked by veterans of D.C. cocktail institutions, including bar manager Joshua White, most recently of the Green Zone. “We need the guidance of people who know the community,” Day says.
While Death & Co is famous for certain cocktails, the owners and bartenders have never rested on their laurels. Those hoping to find the original Oaxaca Old-Fashioned on the menu are going to be disappointed. While each Death & Co menu follows the same format, with drinks organized into categories such as “Light & Playful,” “Bright & Confident” and “Boozy & Honest,” the same creations aren’t offered at each location. Of course, bartenders can take requests — “If we have the ingredients and someone has a favorite cocktail, we’re happy to make it.”
Among the “Bright & Confident” cocktails is a drink called the Hot Sauce Committee, made with Arette Blanco tequila, raspberry brandy, Campari, hot sauce and lime, which sells for $20. (Eric Medsker)
The D.C. menu, developed by Death & Co beverage director Tyson Buhler, features 26 drinks, including a “Zero Proof” section, and will change seasonally. Intriguing and unusual ingredients pop out as you leaf through the menu — Agua de Jamaica, umeboshi vinegar, sandalwood cream soda — as do combinations like the Rare Essence (Remy Martin 1738 cognac, hazelnut eau de vie, crème de pêche, orgeat and a pét-nat sparkling wine) and the Hot Sauce Committee (Arette Blanco tequila, raspberry brandy, Campari, hot sauce and lime). Most drinks are in the $18-$21 range, though they go as high as $24.
Beyond cocktails, the beer and cider menu focuses on local offerings, starting with a $6 Senate Lager, and there are also 10 wines by the glass, four of which are sparkling, for $13 to $25, plus a trio of canned cocktails from Death & Co’s own line at $16 a pop. For snacking, the short menu will include tinned fish, crudités, caviar and marinated olives.
Before you can try the drinks, though, you have to get inside. Death & Co’s New York location is famously busy, to the point that first-time visitors are told, only half-jokingly, to show up when the bar opens if they don’t want to wait for hours. The D.C. location has 84 seats inside, including 15 at the bar, and 52 outside. Nine indoor tables will be available to reserve through Tock, beginning July 5, while bar seating and the patio tables will be available on a first-come, first-seated basis. “We really think it’s important, especially for people who live nearby,” that they can drop in just for a drink, Day says. Or at least try: When the bar’s at capacity, doormen will take hopeful customers’ numbers and text them when something opens up. But as the night goes on, he adds, “we try to be forthright” with people about their chances, encouraging them to try other bars.
On a Monday night in April, a Death & Co pop-up at Service Bar with a limited menu led to a line that went down U Street and around the corner. In a few weeks, the permanent bar will begin opening nightly at 5 p.m. You might want to get there early. And remember: Some things are worth the wait.