The Oaxaca Old Fashioned, an agave riff on one of the oldest classic cocktails. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

There’s probably a mathematical equation that expresses the formula for the perfect bar. Mine would be something like: Great drinks times warm-but-not-intrusive staff minus drunk frat bros trying to score minus loads of TV screens plus walkable proximity to home times jukebox with Tom Waits on it equals ideal.

The equation varies by person. A drunk frat bro’s list, for example, probably would look quite different.

One critical but often overlooked factor in developing an affection for a particular bar, though, is the ability to get into the damn place to begin with.

Based on that measure, Death & Co., the much-lauded, oft-imitated cocktail bar in New York’s East Village, had been unable to climb anywhere on my list of favorites. Several times when I’d been in the city, I’d stepped up to the mysterious facade — no windows, and an ornate door handle upon which great feathered wings give way to curling snakes, forming a gothic caduceus — to find there was a two-hour wait.

If I lived around the corner, I might’ve waited for the call, but for a visitor with limited drinking time, the East Village offers an embarrassment of riches; there are at least 10 other good cocktail bars (including PDT, Booker and Dax, Angel’s Share, Mayahuel and Pouring Ribbons) an easy walk away. A talented long-distance spitter could hit Amor y Amargo from the line outside Death & Co.

Thus, when the bar founders’ book “Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails” came out this past winter, I found myself in the odd circumstance of drinking multiple Death & Co. cocktails without ever having set foot inside Death & Co.

I’d still recommend that a newbie start with classics by Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich and Gary Regan, and both Jim Meehan of PDT and Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., have recently made strong contributions with books conveying a ton about composition and technique. But the Death & Co. book has deep charms. There’s in-depth exploration of tools and technique, how to pair flavors, the balance between booze and other drink elements. Any layperson seeking to increase her geekery will find value in the discussion of “lifting” vs. “binding” bitters, in the “Mr. Potato Head” principle of creating drinks (swapping one set of “features” for another) and in the useful tips on cocktailing when all you’ve got is small, half-melted, drippy ice cubes from a soda machine.

It took the Death & Co. crew a while to do a book, and when they did, “we really looked at the scope of cocktail books that were out there and felt that cocktail culture wasn’t just underrepresented, it wasn’t there at all,” says David Kaplan, founder and co-owner of the bar and one of the book’s three authors. “That’s really what we set out to do: a love letter to this industry.”

The book provides deeper insight — the how and the why — into many of the drinks that made Death & Co. famous, such as the Oaxaca Old Fashioned and the Flor de Jerez. “Hopefully they’ll be a springboard for you to create your own drinks: Like, ‘oh, I don’t have Amer Picon, but I see what they’re doing here; I’ll use a comparable vermouth or create my own infusion,’” says Kaplan.

Threaded with notes from “the regulars,” folks who’ve been drinking at the bar for years, the book also offers a real sense of what it’s like to be a part of the bar’s circle, as a drinker or an employee. A minute-by-minute breakdown of a day at the bar, detailing everything that happens to make it work, and a scene that captures the staff’s drink auditioning process (the bartender’s equivalent of a writer’s workshop) provide a glimpse of how much thought goes into a drink that makes the bar’s menu.

They also remind home cocktailers that our cute little experiments with bitters and clear ice do not a bartender make. I came away from the book and my conversation with Kaplan reminded that this is exhausting work. I caught Kaplan coming off a plane; Proprietors LLC — the hospitality company he co-owns with co-author Alex Day — now operates six bars. It just launched the Normandie Club in L.A. and will soon open the Walker Inn nearby, which Kaplan describes as “probably the most ambitious, elevated cocktail service we’ve ever done,” with menus inspired by a single theme, “similar to what Grant Achatz does with Next” in Chicago.

Sadly, I won’t be in L.A. anytime soon, but in New York in early March, I wagered that the enormous Slurpee that had fallen on the city the night before might cut down on bar traffic. Still, I had the cab drop us off a block away, and my husband and I braved the snowbanks to look less like tourists. To paraphrase Mick Jagger, to drink in this town you must be tough tough tough, etc.

For once, Death and Co. was half empty, and the guy tending the door was a charming University of Maryland graduate who, we discovered, had once been a regular at the Takoma Park Co-op (two blocks from our house; typically no wait list.)

The bar was pleasingly dark and quiet that night, lit by candles and dim chandeliers. We tried to cover as much of the menu as two people sensibly could in an hour, downing several beautiful, thoughtfully composed drinks. My favorite was the Slow Focus, a mix of gin, sweet vermouth, dry sherry, Aperol and Cointreau; a sip evolved on my palate, first bittersweet and botanical and then a bloom of sherry across the tongue. I was happy. My shoes were full of slush, my toes cold as a good highball, but Death & Co. was no longer my favorite bar I’ve never been to.

Allan is a Takoma Park, Md., writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.


Oaxaca Old Fashioned. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Flor de Jerez. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Oaxaca Old Fashioned

Flor de Jerez