Celebrated cocktail lair Death & Co makes its long-awaited D.C. debut on Friday, July 21, breathing fresh life into a high-profile address that previously housed an equally accomplished drinking institution for years (124 Blagden Alley NW).
Mixology vet Derek Brown permanently shuttered his lauded Columbia Room in early 2022, wrapping up a successful 12-year run in Blagden Alley. Brown handed over the Columbia Room keys to his friends at Death & Co — a pioneering cocktail group with bars in NYC, Denver, and LA.
The fourth U.S. location for the renowned beverage brand is the first with an outdoor patio. Columbia Room received a big renovation while maintaining select elements to pay homage to a bar that helped define a cocktail generation. Death & Co founder David Kaplan is well aware he has big shoes to fill.
“In taking over Columbia Room and bringing Death & Co to life within its four walls, we are committed to preserving the spirit of one of the country’s greatest bars,” Kaplan tells Eater. “We knew that no matter where we went in D.C. that we’d be living in Derek’s long shadow.”
The East Village flagship that started it all popped open on New Year’s Eve 2007, and each subsequent Death & Co continues to maintain its own unique design and cocktails (here, starting at $18 each). Hours are 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday to Wednesday and 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday to Saturday.
The menu’s illustrated, art-filled layout, however, is constant, a guide meandering through five drink profiles starting with the lightest and most refreshing and concluding with the more “spiritous” of the bunch. Category titles include “Elegant & Timeless,” “Boozy & Honest,” and “Rich & Comforting,” along with a dedicated zero-proof section. The initial 28-drink offering will slowly be rotated out as the bar develops its District-centric personality.
Death & Co wastes no time diving into the fashionable savory martini with a drink dubbed the Damia. The umami-forward martini riff joins gin with an heirloom tomato-infused dry vermouth, touch of strawberry liqueur for texture, and dash of “funky Jamaican rum [to] help bump the savory, umami aroma of the tomato,” says food and beverage director Tyson Buhler.
Another highlight off the opening menu is the Coconut Jam — “a drink that is pretty adventurous on paper: rye whiskey, horseradish, apple, and coconut, but is absolutely crushable,” says Buhler. The drink is described as a variation on the pina colada that’s “lighter and drier than the beach-side classic, but still just decadent enough.”
Kaplan points out that while he and his national team are opening the bar, it will be staffed by a 34-person-deep team of local bartenders recruited from respected cocktail haunts like Green Zone, Jack Rose, and Imperfecto. This strategy allows Death & Co to “carve a place for it in the D.C. cocktail community,” he says.
While cocktails are the main draw, Death & Co also showcases a section of cheffed-up bar snacks like marinated olives, veggies with labneh, and spiced nuts. Never to miss out on a good trend, the bar also serves tinned fish as well as caviar service that arrives alongside a shot of Aquavit. One NYC-born fan favorite making its way down the I-95 is Uncle Wes’ Drunken Cookies. Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies made with banana liqueur are served beside a dunk-friendly glass of chilled milk.
“We approach the progression of our food and beverage programs with gradual builds, layering new technique, ingredients, and ideologies on top of the groundwork we’ve built,” Buhler explains. The aim, he says, is to use classic cocktails as a foundation for modern techniques and methods.
The full-scale refresh entailed lightening up Columbia Room’s dark interior with blond wooden millwork. A center steel-framed door opens to the bar and lounge, featuring a pearly-white marble bar top as the show-stopping centerpiece upon entry.
Death & Co preserved the iconic, mosaic-tiled artwork running the length of the wall where the previous tenant’s tasting bar once sat. Outside, alleyway guests ascend a set of stairs to encounter the breezy patio bar flanked by lush plants and oversized seating.
Kaplan says he’s had an eye on D.C. for many years, especially after becoming close with Brown when Columbia Room won the 2017 Spirited Award for “Best American Cocktail Bar” from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation.
“It’s a beautiful city with a brilliant food and beverage scene. Other bar operators and the hospitality community have been warm, supportive, and welcoming,” says Kaplan.
—Tierney Plumb contributed to this report