Chain Reaction: How Cocktail Bars Are Branching Out to New Cities

Death & Co Denver’s main bar is located in the lobby at the Ramble Hotel.

Just as the third wave coffee movement saw companies like Stumptown, Intelligentsia and Verve expand their footprints across the country and the globe, the evolution of the cocktail renaissance has some of America’s most acclaimed bars following suit. New York’s original speakeasy-style bar, PDT, has an offshoot in Hong Kong. The Aviary brought its famously elaborate cocktails from Chicago to New York, while Employees Only went from New York to L.A. and Singapore. Meanwhile, Broken Shaker, which started as a Miami pop-up, followed the Freehand hotel expansion to New York, Chicago and L.A.; and New York’s Dead Rabbit will open a spot this year in New Orleans, while co-owner Jack McGarry recently told Drinks International they were aiming for 10 new locations in the next 10 years. The list goes on.

Highlighting this trend in our 2020 Imbibe 75 Issue, we spoke with some of the folks behind these expansions to explore the challenges and benefits of building a brand beyond where it originates. Notable industry names like Mother’s Ruin, Billy Sunday and Death & Co all recently opened, or are about to open, additional locations in new cities. “I always felt there was the potential to tell more of the Death & Co story beyond the four walls in the East Village,” says David Kaplan, founder and co-owner of Death & Co. The bar’s original location in Manhattan opened more than a decade ago and soon became a pillar of the local and national cocktail scene, with notable bartenders creating modern classics behind the bar, such as Phil Ward and his Oaxacan Old Fashioned.

In the summer of 2018, Death & Co Denver opened in the boutique Ramble Hotel in the city’s River North neighborhood, and the third and newest location in downtown L.A.’s Arts District kicked off 2020 with a grand opening on New Year’s Eve. “We work to have each location reflect the city and neighborhood while pulling certain design elements through from the New York location,” says Kaplan. “Our service style is very much the same at each location, but even there we have some variation as Denver has multiple outlets under one roof and L.A. will as well. And while the menu has a similar feel at each location, the offerings—from the beer, wine and cocktails to the food—are unique to each spot.”

Chicago bar Billy Sunday, which was already hyped as one of the country’s best before it even opened in the Logan Square neighborhood in early 2013, will likewise be bringing its signature style—and lauded vintage spirits program—into a new concept when it opens in Optimist Hall in Charlotte, North Carolina, in early 2020. Within the food hall there will be a proper Billy Sunday, as well as a new spot from the team called The Spindle Bar. “We’ll weave in notes of the neighborhood and place that will give Billy Sunday a southern flavor while maintaining its signature craft and quality,” says owner Matthias Merges.

Merges notes that the growth and popularity of the industry as a whole is bolstering interest in new locations, even in smaller markets. “The cocktail culture revival has really been incredible over the past 10 years, giving rise to a whole generation of excellent barkeeps and spirit producers,” says Merges. “More and more we see our guests being aware and knowledgeable about cocktails and cocktail culture, taking deep dives, asking smart questions and expecting a higher-quality experience on all fronts.”

At Mother’s Ruin, the casual cocktail bar opened by T.J. Lynch and Richard Knapp in Manhattan in 2011, that experience is all about high-quality drinks paired with a laid-back vibe. Lynch now aims to translate that approach with two new locations in Chicago and Nashville. “The majority of what we do will be the same at all locations—it’s good drinks, a great staff, tasty food and slushy machines,” says Lynch. “We have a pretty basic concept that I think is malleable to lots of different markets because we don’t do anything too fancy or specific or hard to reproduce. We’re more of a staff-based concept, and the quality of our staff is going to make it happen.”

As long as customers are looking for a good drink, expect to see cocktail bars continue to follow in the footsteps of other hospitality players like coffee shops, breweries and restaurants. “The challenge of creating something that stays unique, compelling and interesting while growing to a national stage is incredibly exciting,” says Kaplan. “Many have done it in other areas of hospitality, but we’re just now starting to see it in the cocktail space, and we’re all approaching it a little differently. It feels like we’re charting new territory.”


Did you enjoy this article? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for a print or digital subscription to Imbibe Magazine. Click here for special savings!