This is The Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that work behind the bar at some of New York's hottest cocktail parlors.
Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon. [Krieger]
The Dead Rabbit is the fun and well-regarded five-month-old Water Street watering hole from celebrated Northern Irish barmen Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry. Muldoon was the bar manager at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast, turning it into one of the most-awarded bars in the world, while McGarry worked under Muldoon there before heading to London's Milk & Honey. At Dead Rabbit, the mentor and mentee?who have the sort of easy, symbiotic relationship that reflects both trust and friendship in addition to a shared business sense?have come together to create a two-part bar with a taproom that feels like a down home Northern Irish pub and a a separate upstairs cocktail parlor. So far, the response is overwhelmingly positive, with the bar a finalist for six different awards at this year's Tales of the Cocktail. In this interview, the pair talks about bartending back in Belfast, opening The Dead Rabbit here, and what someone can expect on an average night.
The first thing people notice here is that there are two separate bars. What's the difference between the two?
Jack McGarry, co-owner: When you first come in, we have the taproom downstairs, which is more of a hustle-and-bustle type bar. It's oriented toward craft beer and has 60 Irish whiskeys, but also has all the types of drinks that sell in these types of bars in these types of neighborhoods. So highballs, beers, whiskeys, the normal stuff. We do have some programs down there that are different, like bottled punch by the glass or by the flagon.
Upstairs, we're a cocktail bar, so it's sit-down only. We have about 57 seats, and we have 82 drinks on the menu, structured into 12 different sections. That's where we tell the story of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in cocktails and mixed drinks.
Is the crowd in the two bars different?
Sean Muldoon, co-owner: A lot of people coming upstairs are cocktail aficionados, or people who want a good drink. A lot of couples, people here on business meetings, people like that. Downstairs is a lot of locals, the after-work crowd, and tourists.
Is that what you were going for?
Sean: I worked in this area for two years, so I was aware of the demographics of this area. 60,000 people live here, 200,000 more work here. And all the bars are sort of a similar style, on Stone Street and throughout the area. We thought there was room for a really great bar down here. And we felt the downstairs bar, the ground floor, would be more for tourists, the after work crowd, and locals, and upstairs would be much more of a destination. Downstairs is crowded, busy, good atmosphere, music's loud. Upstairs is much more intimate.
We really wanted a bar that had the ability to have two rooms. We didn't know it was going to be upstairs and downstairs?we wanted a front and a back room. We didn't believe, after the market research we did, that we could do our concept in just one bar, one room.
What's the busiest time of the week in the parlor upstairs?
Jack: Typically, Wednesdays through Saturdays. Saturday's a later night, it kicks off later, but this room fills up most nights and it's pretty busy all of the time. Monday night is getting a lot better, Tuesday night we're still working on, but the rest of the week is pretty strong.
Sean: Downstairs can be packed for lunch, it can be quiet for lunch, it really depends. But the busiest nights there, too, are typically Wednesdays through Saturdays.
Who are your favorite customers?
Jack: A couple of different groups of people. Seeing fellow bartenders in here gives it a nice atmosphere. People coming over from Belfast, too. And the locals. The whole point of this bar was that we would be welcoming of every person, where there's no dress code or anything like that. It's one of those bars where a magical night can happen, and it can be with anybody. Our only philosophy is just having great fun.
Are there any ingredients or spirits you're especially excited about right now?
Jack: I'd say Irish whiskey. Scotch, rye, bourbon, they've all had their shining moments. We don't believe that Irish whiskey has, so we're trying to promote that. We have 10 drinks up here that have Irish whiskey in them, and downstairs of course we have 60 whiskeys.
Sean: Biggest Irish whiskey collection in New York.
Jack: We also specialize in what we believe to be the best Irish coffee in the city. And a hot whiskey punch, which is also made with Irish whiskey. The whole branding downstairs is all about Irish whiskey.
Are there any drinks you absolutely hate making?
Jack: Both here and at our last place, our belief is that if you're going to make a drink, make it to the best of your ability. So if you come with that attitude that you hate making a drink, you're not really going to give it your full attention. Any drink someone asks for?like if you ask for a dirty martini?we'll try and make it to the best of our ability. I personally hate a dirty martini, but we still try our best to make a consistently good one.
How do you cut someone off when they've had too much?
Jack: Sean's my mentor, so I had to ask him how that works. A lot of bartenders do it from their side of the bar; it's like a confrontation. Everything changes when you come around the bar and approach somebody in a nice manner. Even if you get a server to do it, you just take any risk of confrontation out of it.
Sean: As a bartender, you're responsible for who you're serving alcohol to. If they fell down the stairs, or hurt themselves after? So we're doing it in their best interest. Another good way, even if you're doing it from your side of the bar, is to constantly say to the person, "Can I get you another glass of water?" When you offer a glass of water, you're letting them know. Because I can remember being drunk and a bartender called me by my name and said to me, "Sean, can I get you another glass of water?" To me that was letting me know I'd had too much to drink.[Krieger]
How did you get into bartending?
Sean: Back in like 1991, Northern Ireland was a troubled place and it was driving me nuts living there, so I wanted to get out. I actually wanted to pursue a musical career and travel, and bartending was a transportable sort of job, something you can take with you and go somewhere else. I always believed that if the music didn't work out, I'd maybe end up on a cruise ship or something telling people all these stories of me doing that thing. But I always believed that traveling and moving away was something I was destined to do and I felt bartending was a way to do that.
It wasn't until seven years later that I decided to take it seriously. Something happened in my life, I saw a program on television about a furniture maker who was doing nothing in rural Italy. He went to America, couldn't speak any English, but his uncle really believed in him. Ended up that this guy became the most highly sought after furniture maker on the planet. I can't remember the guy's name, but I remember being blown away by this and thinking that if you can do something like that with carpentry or woodworking surely you can do it with anything. It made me realize that you can be content staying local and doing local things, or you can really take that and be the absolute best in the world at whatever you're doing.
And then how about you, Jack?
Jack: I started off at a neighborhood pub in Belfast, working for pocket money. My cousin was the general manager of the bar. He moved down the City Center at Belfast to another bar, so I followed him around. Then I met a guy at a hotel my cousin took over, and that guy introduced me to a protégé of Sean's. I was a year out of school at this time, just chilling out before going to university?I wanted to be a geography teacher, no idea why?but that's when I started hearing about Sean and that's when The Merchant started kicking into gear. That's why I wanted to work at The Merchant. So I sat down with Sean there, and he had two pieces of ice at the table. This goes back to that carpentry story: one piece of ice was perfectly cut, shaved, crystal clear, and the other one was jagged, messy, imperfect. He said, "There's two ways you can go in this bar. Are you going to be this bartender or the other one?" And I wanted to be the clear, crystal clear, perfect thing.
Sean: It must be said, as Jack was hearing about me, I was hearing about him at the same time. People were speaking to him and then coming back to me and saying, "This kid needs to be working with you. This kid deserves to be in big places." At that time Jack was 18. This was five or six years ago, and back then, I was on a mission at The Merchant to be the absolute best in the world. Jack really came on board and embraced everything we were doing and became his own person. Now, literally, we're both thinking the exact same was about being the best in the world.
How did that lead to you two opening up in New York?
Sean: We'd done tremendously well there. It was the most-awarded cocktail bar in the world. There were people who worked here in the Stock Exchange in New York but were based out of Belfast one week out of every six, bringing American interests to Belfast during the peace process. They saw what we were doing and knew that we were limited as to what we could do, we literally could not go any further. There was no way up. One of them sat us down and said, "Listen, if you're able to replicate what you did in Belfast in New York, you'll have so many more opportunities. Would you be interested in that?" This was three years ago. The guy stayed with it, he met other people, and they made it happen.
As bartenders, what's the most important tool for you?
Jack: I think the most important thing in a bar is comfort. If your guest comes in and feels comfortable, feels at ease, everything else?the product, the part that we deliver, we can take care of that. Every single element of what we do is for the whole experience, and comfort is paramount. Every time we come in here, we're constantly looking for what we can do better. We're not thinking we've made it.
Sean: To be honest, I'd say it is the staff. They're literally representing you, and we're very, very careful about our staff. In the downstairs bar, we look for unique characteristics, regardless of age or how they look. If they have a personality that fits with the concept, we're definitely interested in them. Up in the parlor it's much more about ability behind the bar rather than speed, because it's a cocktail bar. So I'd say that the first thing that's important is the staff, and the second thing is the product you're offering. I fully, fully believe that if your concept and what you're offering is right, you will always be busy.
When you're not here, where are you going for drinks?
Jack: We're always here, night and day. But when we're not, we like going to pub-like places that are comfortable. They're neighborhood places. Because the days that we generally have off together are Sundays, we'll go to a bar called 11th Street. It has a really good Irish session, usually kicks in for full effect at midnight. We'll go there and have a couple pints. Swift, also. And I mean they're all more Irish pubs. We don't really go to many cocktail bars.
Sean: If we do go to cocktail bars, we have a few that are go-tos. Clover Club, Maison Premiere, PDT. And I suppose that the bar that everybody goes to for a good night out is Employees Only.
If it's my first time in the parlor at Dead Rabbit, what should I order?
Jack: It depends on what you like. We have 82 on the menu, because we want to tell a story with the drinks. So when people come in and ask us that, we straight away ask what kind of drinks they like and go from there. We have personal favorites, but there's no real, defined Dead Rabbit signature cocktails.
We try to promote punch up here, give you information on it straight away when you enter just to let you know what 17th, 18th, and 19th century styles of punches were. So punch is a focal point. We're trying to make a statement with the Irish coffee downstairs, too. We want people to come here for Irish Coffee. We've got it streamlined and consistent, so that if you've got 20 people coming in for the Irish coffee, we can get them knocked out quickly and every single one of them will be exactly the same. So if we want the Dead Rabbit to be known for one thing, it'd be the Irish coffee.
Any final thoughts?
Sean: We're open to anybody. There's no pretensions whatsoever. Our doormen are welcoming, they're not there to scare people. We're very aware that the doorman is the first and last person someone will see at a bar. We understand that people travel far to get to the bar, so we want to make sure that they get the best possible experience.
· All Coverage of The Dead Rabbit [~ENY~]