Tyson Buhler manages beverage operations at New York City’s exclusive cocktail hot spot, Death & Co. and is the US winner of the 2015 World Class Bartending Competition. As a teenager he worked as a dishwasher, made his way to Le Cordon Bleu and then landed in the craft cocktail scene where he found his true passion.
World Class Bartending Champion – What was that like?
It was crazy; the 2015 World Class bartending competition is huge. They do both a regional and national competition. There are 3 levels containing different challenges: Creating, tasting and experience. It was super fun, we made about 15 drinks for the judges. So much energy everywhere – it was very intense.
Tell me a little about Death & Co.
Death & Co. started in the East Village a little over 13 years ago. It’s a 50-seat craft cocktail bar with no standing room, seating only. We hold the door every night and once it’s full, we start a waiting list, take people’s numbers, and call when seats are ready. We opened at the perfect time in New York when cocktails were becoming the ‘thing,’ and it was successful from day one. Death & Co. is very cocktail driven; 90% of our sales come from cocktails. We also serve beer and wine, but cocktails make up most of the sales. It was a novel idea at the time and it’s saturated market now. We have been able to maintain our success due to having extremely talented people.
What makes Death & Co. different?
We had 80-90 drinks on the menu that no one else had. You also get the feeling of exclusivity because you can’t see inside from the street. It’s a unique bar where people sit down and have a good experience rather than have people reach over you to order drinks. We also have many staff members who care about their jobs.
What do you do at Death & Co.? How many locations do you oversee?
I’m the Beverage Director. I started bartending in New York in 2012, ran the program a few years, then broke off from being behind the bar a couple years ago to open Death & Co. in Denver last May. I keep an eye on the staff and beverage offerings, development of cocktail menus from the very beginning to the ideation of the drinks themselves, and monitor liquor costs and numbers.
How often do you change your menu out and what is your strategy behind menu planning?
Our menu changes about twice a year. Sometimes we do seasonal items; for example we try not to put strawberries on the menu in December. Our menus come from brainstorming with the owner and head bartenders by looking at what was successful and tweaking it. We don’t do large changes very often due to time and expense, usually just small tweaks.
What is the current trend in craft cocktails you are seeing in NYC?
Craft cocktails are really new and trends are changing rapidly. 5-10 years ago no one wanted a Negroni – too bitter – but it’s becoming more mainstream. Taste buds are changing and people are more educated. People are drinking more cautiously, so we now have non-alcohol and low-alcohol drinks. People are understanding that if they enjoy drinks in a different way, they can have more drinks.
What is the most popular drink you serve right now?
In New York, people order strictly off the menu even though we do offer classics off the menu. In Denver, the Old Fashioned is the most popular drink.
What’s your background?
I’ve been in the industry since I was 14 or 15 dishwashing and working in kitchens. I grew up in Kansas and moved to Arizona to attend Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. Very early, I decided I didn’t want to be a chef. It was too hard, the hours were too long and the pay was too low. It was one of the toughest parts of the hospitality industry. I left and got a great job at a beautiful bar called J Bar in a resort in Arizona. There, the head bartender had a similar background – he also started out in culinary school before deciding it wasn’t for him – and we bonded. He taught me everything he knew and showed me what a real cocktail was. Then Jillian Vose dragged me out to work at Death & Co. in the fall of 2012.
What do you miss the most about your dishwashing days?
There’s something kind of rewarding about going in to work with just one other person, turn some music on, and just go about your job. It can be kind of monotonous, but can also be kind of meditative to do something so repetitive. The silver lining about dishwashing is that it’s nice to be on your feet and work with your hands. I could never sit at a desk. There’s also a ton of fascinating people to work with in the restaurant business.
Who inspires you?
Everyone I get to work with inspires me; from the owner to the head bartenders and every server and bartender. It’s inspiring to be around people who serve others everyday for not the best pay in the world. We have people from every background at Death & Co. – doctors, lawyers, you name it.
Tell me about how you use Bevager
I have been using Bevager for about 3 – 4 years. It helps with efficiency, taking inventory, costing, it’s a one stop shop to get everything we need all in one place. Before Bevager, as a small shop we did everything strictly manual. We hadn’t tried other software & then a friend recommended Bevager to me.
In New York it took us several hours to do inventory. Bevager saves us about 60% of the time. Denver is a much larger, 12,000 square foot food place with food, beverages and a hotel. There’s event space, a cafe, main bar, another main bar, outdoor space and a liquor store. That’s a lot to count and the app helps us take a massive amount of time off the counting.
Costing is also super important to us, mostly driven off cocktails. Having the ability to have staff enter the info helps us to be able to approve menus and save time. In the industry as a whole many bartenders and managers don’t even know how to do PLs so we have to sit down and train them. Bevager is easier to train them on. People are more willing to adapt to technology now, they use it for everything. We love Bevager, it’s been great to use.
Do you have any advice for the kid who is washing dishes that wants to be the next World Class Bartender?
You need to be willing to start small with the basics rather than searching for the accolades/press. Put your head down, be willing to work hard and earn it.