The Franchising of the American Cocktail Bar
World-class cocktail spots like Death & Co., Broken Shaker and the Dead Rabbit are looking to go from local to global
In late October of 2019 the satirical Instagram account The Daily Expo offered a headline from their “newsroom”: Local Indianapolis Institution O’Callaghan’s Pub & Grill, Announce 2nd Location in NYC. The Daily Expo — imagine it like The Onion for the bar world — joked that “the internet is buzzing after a press release” announced the Indianapolis pub would be opening a satellite location in Manhattan’s West Village. To any one entrenched in the cocktail world, the target of the satire was clear: all the New York bars injecting their brands into so-called second-tier cities that didn’t necessarily ask for them.
“If you look at this cocktail colonialism idea from the perspective of the businessperson, it’s the dream. Who hasn’t fantasized about being the Starbucks of bars?” says the anonymous editor of The Daily Expo. “But when you do this, you’re taking the ‘public’ out of ‘public house.’ My favorite bars are always a product of the community they are serving.”
If you don’t closely monitor the cocktail world, you might not have noticed, but that “hot, new” bar in your town? It’s an offshoot of a bar from, most likely New York. Today, in fact, many of New York’s top bars are now turning into, essentially, chains, with locations popping up not just the country over, but worldwide.
Of course, even now world-famous New York bars started as small venues serving their local community, like Death and Co., which opened on New Year’s Eve 2006 in the East Village. It was still the nascent days of the cocktail renaissance and the spot — dark, moody, no standing allowed, fresh juices and syrups always, some 50 different cocktails available — was a rarity, even in Manhattan. By 2010 it had become an institution and, like anything in America that gets some popularity, it was time to expand and make some money.
“Death and Co.’s Arrival May Turn Denver Into a Cocktail City” claimed one Conde Nast Traveler headline in April of 2018 as the bar’s satellite location was preparing to open in The Ramble Hotel. “It ticks all the boxes for us in terms of the energy of the city — it’s exploding right now,” partner Alex Day then said of Denver, while noting that his team had been visiting all the local breweries in the craft beer-mad city to help inform their beer list.
To many locals, however, Denver already had some pretty good cocktail bars, like the RiNo Yacht Club just a mile away, or the buzzy Bar Helix, which had opened to much acclaim the previous year. Sean Kenyon’s Williams & Graham had been named America’s best cocktail bar just a few years earlier.
“I woke up in a Boston hotel room this past Friday morning,” Kenyon wrote about seeing the CN Traveler headline. “My first thoughts: ‘What the fucking fuck?’”
He wrote of being tired of “major-market bias” and the idea that cocktails are inherently better in the bigger cities. He noted that Denver still had a cocktail bar, The Cruise Room, that literally opened the day after Prohibition ended. Even still, he graciously had to note that he was excited about Death & Co.’s arrival, explaining that they had “seamlessly integrated” into the Denver scene by exclusively hiring locals.
“From what I’ve seen, D&C has come to Denver to be part of our community, not to set itself above the community,” wrote Kenyon. “It will not ‘turn’ us into a cocktail city; it will make us better for its presence.”
On this most recent New Year’s Eve, Death & Co. continued its expansion into Los Angeles. Despite what Kenyon says, I have to wonder: Are these bars really making other city’s cocktail culture’s better with their presence?
Another top New York cocktail bar, The NoMad, has likewise been in expansion mode. The upscale hotel bar, opened at the same-name hotel on West 28th Street, “radiates the conviviality and warmth of a classic New York City tavern” according to its website. It too expanded to Los Angeles in early 2018 (along with the hotel).
“The NoMad will be our addition to the vitality of the new scene and, at the same time, we pay homage and much respect to this legendary urban landscape,” posted co-owner and chef Daniel Humm on Instagram.
As a writer I get to travel a lot, and I’m always interested in seeing a city’s “real” local bars, not a facsimile of one that had originally existed in another city. To me, it’s like going to Las Vegas to see the Eiffel Tower, a duplicate that’s conspicuously plopped in front of the Paris hotel on the Strip. Kinda cool, I suppose, but nothing like the real thing. (Fitting, perhaps, that the NoMad would also expand to Las Vegas in 2018, with everything intentionally “Vegas”-ized.)
Hotel groups have been key in chain-ifying the American cocktail bar. Most famous is the Freehand Hotel and its Broken Shaker, which first opened in Miami to much ballyhoo in early 2012 as a pop-up at the Indian Creek Hotel. By the end of the year, the same owners of the NoMad, Sydell Group, had turned the hotel into the Freehand, and Broken Shaker was a permanent resident. In 2014 it was named the 22nd best bar in the world on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Bars list; expansion was thusly imminent.
A second Freehand and Broken Shaker opened in Chicago in 2015. In the summer of 2017, the Freehand and Broken Shaker opened in Los Angeles, exactly one block from where The Nomad would eventually set up shop. By the time Freehand and the Broker Shaker had arrived in New York in mid-2018, it was starting to feel like those of us who live here had finally gotten our own Chili’s.
“We keep the foundation of what Shaker is about: Everyone is welcome, it’s a relaxed atmosphere with attention to detail in the food, drinks, music and service, but each city is so different, and we really get inspired by each one,” says Gabe Orta, co-founder of the Broken Shaker, who claims the menus are altered slightly for the subcultures of each community. Admittedly, I’ve had some fun nights there over the past year, the cocktails are great, and they’ve had no problem drawing eager crowds. (In October, Sydell Group sold off the Broken Shaker and Freehand Hotel for some $400 million.)
This year, NoMad is set to also expand to London, as international destinations seem to be the next frontier. Employee’s Only, yet another one of New York’s earliest craft cocktail makers (established in 2004), opened in Singapore in 2016, Hong Kong in 2017 and Sydney in 2018, in each case not only looking as close to the original Manhattan location as possible, but taking many of its New York employees with it. PDT, New York’s ur-modern speakeasy, would also open in Hong Kong in 2018.
How is this all going to play out? Cocktails today are certainly better now across the board than they’ve ever been, and getting a great cocktail in any city you visit is going to continue to only get easier and easier. But, at the same time, I’m not so sure most people get all that excited when they see a new cocktail bar opening up these days, even if it’s some legendary brand name from New York.
In fact, in 2017 New York got a taste of its own medicine as a famous bar finally expanded to our little burg. No, it wasn’t Indianapolis’s O’Callaghan’s Pub & Grill, but instead Chicago’s famed The Aviary opening in Midtown’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. Even as I was excited that the avant-garde drinks laboratory — and producer of such Instagram cat nip as In the Rocks and Wake and Bake — would now be in New York, I couldn’t help but wonder why we needed them. Didn’t we already have, well, Death and Co. and The NoMad and PDT?
Indeed, my first visit to The Aviary New York felt cold and sterile, like I was drinking in a Marriott lobby in Anywhere, USA. It didn’t feel like a New York cocktail bar to me and I haven’t been back since.
On the contrary, in September of this year, another top Los Angeles bar, Old Lightning, offered a two-night-only pop-up at Peppi’s Cellar, a underground spot in Nolita. Old Lightning is world-renowned for their vintage spirits list, so of course I was keen to check it out. They had transported perhaps one-thousand valuable bottles across the country. I finally got to try my long-time white whale, Red Hook Rye, a whiskey that amusingly had been released back in 2006 just about a mile or so from my apartment in Brooklyn.
I had a wonderful night, but more so, I was glad the pop-up had forced me to check out a local bar I had, for whatever reason, avoided. I was impressed with Old Lightning, but I was blown away by the Peppi’s Cellar’s space and team. I have since returned to see it in its regular state and enjoy its regular drinks — it’s a wonderful New York bar.
Another wonderful bar is The Dead Rabbit, which feels like a uniquely New York City bar that could (and should) only exist in New York. The name itself is a reference to A Gangs of New York-era Irish-American street gang that roamed Lower Manhattan, right where the modern “Grocery and Grog” currently stands. The Irish-style cocktail bar has amassed awards over the last several years — even being named World’s Best Bar in 2016. On October 21st, they posted an announcement on Instagram: “Craic meets Creole. Your favorite Irish bar is coming to New Orleans.”
“We won’t be happy until Dead Rabbit is in every major city in the U.S.,” co-owner Jack McGarry noted. It a way, his bar had been acting like a franchise for years, offering T-shirts, ball caps, posters, and other branded tchotchkes more associated with theme-restaurant gift shops. “Then we’ll take it global. When we retire we want to know we’ve brought the Irish bar into the 21st century.”
A simultaneously released exclusive story with Drinks International would note that this was the first part of their nationwide expansion, with plans to open 10 Dead Rabbits in 10 other U.S. cities in the next 10 years. Whether New Orleans, maybe America’s finest drinking city, needed an Irish-owned, New York cocktail bar is anybody’s guess.
I’d say they probably don’t. A New York cocktail bar in New Orleans seems no more interesting to me than an “authentic New York bagel” shop in Dallas. Or “real Texas BBQ” in New York. At a certain point, your bar has just become another location of the Hard Rock Cafe. Then again, the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square is always packed.
“When someone from a major market plants themselves in a smaller market and takes the throne, they’re robbing a local of the opportunity to sit there,” says The Daily Expo’s editor. “But, hey, that’s capitalism, baby. And there is no shortage of thirsty mouths.”