Closeup - David Kaplan

After graduating from Jackson Hole High School, David Kaplan studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, then moved to Las Vegas and worked for the N9NE Group, primarily in the Rain nightclub in the Palms Hotel and Casino. He later moved to New York City and opened a bar of his own called Death & Company.

It makes sense that someone who has lived the vast majority of his life in Jackson — bursting at the seams with tourists for much of the year — would carve a niche for himself in the hospitality industry.

What’s interesting, though, is how East Jackson resident David Kaplan rose through the ranks, bootstrapping himself first to the top of the craft cocktail industry with one, then two, then three uber-popular cocktail-focused bars, then expanded his business to include best-selling cocktail books, and finally a consulting arm.

Kaplan, 39, moved to Jackson with his family when he was 3 years old. He was raised in the valley through graduation from Jackson Hole High School, save for his freshman and sophomore years when he temporarily left Jackson Hole. He returned for his junior and senior years.

After graduating high school, Kaplan headed east to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York to study fine art photography.

Finishing his studies in New York in 2004 with a photography degree, Kaplan put his camera aside — at least as a career — and moved to Las Vegas, where he worked for the N9NE Group, primarily in the Rain nightclub in the Palms Hotel and Casino.

It was a seemingly unusual career decision, but Kaplan says he was simply following his calling.

“I didn’t know anyone out there and just took the job to, you know, learn more about hospitality and knew that’s what I wanted to do, in spite of really loving my general Fine Art degree,” Kaplan said in an interview while traveling with his 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Aria, and wife, Jenna, who also works as Kaplan’s publicist.

Kaplan absorbed what he could while seeing thousands of people come and go from the club each night, but tired of the Las Vegas scene of “freshly dried concrete and newly dried paint.” He left the city after nearly a year to head to New York City, his own vision in mind.

“I guess I really was craving the antithesis of that,” Kaplan said of Las Vegas’ nightclub atmosphere.

So after digesting book upon book about craft cocktails and opening bars, Kaplan and a business partner opened “Death & Company” in Manhattan’s East Village. It’s a small, intimate bar — reminiscent of the prohibition-era “speakeasy,” a comparison Kaplan is not terribly fond of — that is now looked upon as one of the bars that “kickstarted the craft cocktail resurgence in New York,” Jenna Kaplan wrote in an email. David Kaplan even brought some Jackson flavor to the fledgling bar, noting that the ceiling itself was inspired by Jackson restaurateur Gavin Fine’s former Rendezvous Bistro location “with the various sized wood slats.”

Death & Co. opened on New Year’s Eve 2006 and quickly gained massive fanfare, aided by the good fortune of a half-page photograph of the bar’s facade featured in a New York Times article that wasn’t solely focused on Kaplan’s establishment.

“We were slammed,” Kaplan said. “It was just wild, and we just kind of figured out what we were doing every night,” even initially eschewing modern bar technology and “running everything on triplicate tickets.

“It was laughable, but the great thing about it was that we all, myself and my partner at the time Ravi, and all of our staff, we really just felt like we’re giving this whole thing a go together. It felt very egalitarian in that way.”

Kaplan and his current business partners have since opened two more bars under the Death & Co. brand, one in Denver and one in Los Angeles.

So, about that name.

“The name comes from the pre-Prohibition, like, temperance movement propaganda which said that if you drink, then you are living a life shadowed by death, or you’re keeping company with death,” the well-read Kaplan said. “And so it’s sort of a jestful tip of the hat to that temperance movement and teetotaling idea that, you know, we are ‘death and company.’ This is who we are: We embrace the dusk and the night. And, you know, we live our life in celebration of cocktails of [alcoholic] spirits.”

David and Jenna Kaplan have since returned to Jackson, where they bought David’s mother’s East Jackson house. After writing two award-winning cocktail books, one of which, “Death & Co.: Modern Classic Cocktails,” is currently the best-selling cocktail book of all time, Kaplan has shifted his focus to consulting and helping new and existing establishments achieve their dreams. He works with businesses on everything from the design and set-up of their bars to designing craft cocktail menus, along with training staff. But Kaplan and his partners are picky about who they work with, he says, only agreeing to work with others who share their core values.

The business model has proved successful, with Kaplan’s umbrella company, Gin & Luck, helping to open over 50 establishments around the world. That includes bars in such far-flung places as Moscow and Mumbai in India.

Indeed, after a highly successful first round of fundraising in 2018 to raise money for brick-and-mortar operations — which Jenna Kaplan said was SeedInvest's most profitable hospitality raise in the company's history — Kaplan and Gin & Luck have embarked on another crowd-fundraiser. This time, it's aimed at growing "new hospitality verticals for his industry, including expanded retail offerings, an education platform, a hotel company, ready-to-drink cocktails," Jenna Kaplan wrote in an email. Nearly $2.5 million of their $6 million goal has been raised thus far.

But one need not travel so far for a sampling of Kaplan’s influence. Glorietta, at 242 N. Glenwood St. in Jackson, enlisted the help of Kaplan’s team before it opened a few years ago. They worked with Glorietta on bar setup, cocktail offerings and training the staff. Kaplan said the owner, Erik Warner, kept bringing Kaplan’s people back for updates and trainings until Warner called not long ago to let Kaplan know he thought his Glorietta staff were ready to take wing on their own.

“We were like, ‘Yeah, man, we think they’ve been ready to fly solo for a year-plus, but you keep flying my partners in and we’re not going to say no,’” Kaplan said with a laugh. “We love the team there [at Glorietta]. ... But yeah, it’s been just an awesome, awesome project, and it’s one of my favorite restaurants and bars in town.”

Contact Tim Woods at 732-5911 or town@jhnewsandguide.com.

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