How Dead Rabbit's Belfast owners created world's best bar in heart of Manhattan
Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry tell how all their hard work paid off after leaving their lives behind in Ardoyne to head Stateside
What makes the world's best bar? It’s a question that experts at the Spirited Awards ask themselves on an annual basis, charged with the unenviable task of whittling down a long list of international establishments old and new, located in Dublin, Dubai, Durban, Detroit and all points in between, to determine the very best in the business.
This year, the bar and restaurant owners, bartenders, cocktail makers, writers and critics who make up the extensive judging panel agreed that they had found their answer on New York’s Water Street, in Manhattan’s financial district, in a relatively modest, fairly new establishment named The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog.
It had everything: the design, the fit, the decor, the range of ales, lagers and cocktails to satisfy an increasingly demanding and knowledgeable clientele, the friendly bar staff and well-made food, the rooms, the entertainment, the spotlessly clean toilets, the intriguing title and backstory, being named, as it is, after a fearsome Irish gang who fought for dominance on the streets of 19th century New York.
Granted, The Dead Rabbit did not boast a 70-story view over the Big Apple, or stock the world’s most expensive cava, or even have the signatures of a consortium of Hollywood A-listers on its lease, but what it lacked in brazenness it made up for in authenticity. The judges were most impressed, perhaps, with its spirited owners, two Belfast boys seeking perfection in the city where dreams are made.
Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, who both hail from Ardoyne, had a vision to combine a classic cocktail lounge with a modern Irish pub. After years of working, learning, saving and scheming back home in Belfast, they decided to focus all of their attention, and apply all of their talents and expertise, into making The Dead Rabbit come alive.
“It was a fantastic feeling realising one of our main objectives in winning the World’s Best Bar award,” admits 27-year-old McGarry, who in 2013 was named International Bartender of the Year, the youngest ever recipient of the award.
“I’m not saying we are the best bar in the world, beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, but it was always something we kept front and centre in our minds before we opened.”
On the night of the Spirited Awards ceremony, organised by the international Tales of the Cocktail conference and festival team, McGarry and Muldoon were on either side of the Atlantic.
“Sean was in London at the ceremony with a few members of our staff while I was in New York,” says McGarry, the younger of the two aficionados.
“The mood on the night was jubilant. Everyone was on cloud nine and partied long into the night.”
Putting himself in the shoes of the judges who saw fit to place their labour of love top of the global pile, Muldoon, formerly the award-winning bar manager of The Merchant Hotel, considers what criteria makes The Dead Rabbit stand out as an example of aesthetic and atmospheric excellence.
“It’s the attention to detail,” says the 45-year-old father of two.
“It’s the staff, the hospitality, the ambience, the fun. It’s the music, the crowd, the branding, the menu. It’s not one thing, but a combination of absolutely everything that makes The Dead Rabbit so unique. It’s unassuming and in no way pretentious. It’s honest and humble like only the best Irish pubs are.”
They may both be authorities on their chosen subjects, passionate proponents of potations and libations, craft beers and artisanal ingredients, rare and original cocktails and a well-designed public space, but setting up and establishing The Dead Rabbit was not an easy task for McGarry and Muldoon.
“Leaving all the comforts of home was the most challenging thing. When we moved to New York, we left absolutely everyone and everything we knew behind. We had to figure out a new city, find a location that we liked, work in jobs that didn’t suit us. We had to win the trust of our partners; we were on the bread line with our earnings. It simply wouldn’t have been possible had we not been there for one another,” McGarry says.
“There were seriously dark days. I wouldn’t be able to go through it again, to open another bar. The Dead Rabbit consumed our lives. It required complete and utter perseverance and focus on the end goal.
“New York is a tough city to live in. You need plenty of distractions to maintain mental stability and vigour. However, it’s without doubt the city of opportunity. If you come here with a vision, a drive to succeed and stick to it, you will achieve. It gives us great pride for both ourselves and everyone back home that the World’s Best Bar is an Irish pub.”
McGarry and Muldoon achieved their desired look for the bar with the help of Belfast-based design and advertising studio Drinksology. For those not yet lucky enough to have visited the bar, The Dead Rabbit website features plenty of images that give you a feel for the place, beautifully lit, with an olde worlde vibe and framed pictures of Irish poets on every almost every wall.
The business is separated into the three distinct bars. On the ground floor is the Taproom, “an honest working person’s pub in the best Anglo-Hibernian tradition” where visitors can enjoy samples from the largest collection of whiskeys in any New York bar. The first floor houses the Parlour, where breakfast is served with cold Guinness in the morning and musicians perform on the piano at night.
And on the third floor the Occasional Room, recently opened for private events, where a painting of Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (from Martin Scorsese’s 2002 period crime flick Gangs of New York) peers down on patrons with a menacing, mischievous grin.
“It’s fantastic to have the Drinksology team involved,” says Muldoon.
“They have been our partners for the last 10 years, ever since the Merchant Hotel days, and are involved in practically every thing we do, from interior design, to menu design and all our branding requirements.
“Belfast really is brimming with talent. If we could, we’d have everyone from back home over here to help us.
“We’re extremely proud Belfast men,” adds McGarry.
“I know some people reading this might think we couldn’t be if we left the place, but we felt that we had to break through our professional ceiling at the time. We’ve taken the best elements of back home and built them into The Dead Rabbit and we talk about Belfast on glowing terms any time we’re asked about it. There is so much talent and creativity back home and it’s being actualised now. Belfast is in a great place at the moment.”
Muldoon and McGarry go back a long way. Both born in north Belfast, their families were familiar and friendly, and the pair first met while playing cribby on the streets of Ardoyne.
“In a professional capacity, I had first heard of Sean’s work when I was 17 through my first cocktail mentor, Kieran Breen, while I was working in Tatu on the Lisburn Road,” McGarry recalls.
“Unfortunately that bar closed for a renovation and we all lost our jobs, but Kieran kept waxing lyrical about Sean and I really wanted to work for him. It took a year-and-a-half for me to realise that ambition and join the team at The Merchant Hotel.
“In Sean, I’ve met someone who shares an undying motivation to be the best version of himself. We’ve had our ups and downs but there’s nobody else I’d go into battle with in this business.”
As proprietors of the world’s finest public house, one battle has been won but the war for perfection rages on. Muldoon and McGarry welcome more and more patrons to The Dead Rabbit with every passing week, but like all serial winners, you won’t see them slowing down any time soon.
The boys are currently knee deep in nostalgia working on their next project, BlackTail, a Cuban-themed pub inspired by the life and works of American author Ernest Hemingway and finished with a distinct prohibition-era Havana look and feel. Located just around the corner on Manhattan’s Pier A, it reflects the quality and attention to detail prevalent in The Dead Rabbit.
“Aside from that, we are also in the process of writing our new book, A Whiskey Drinker’s Guide to Ireland,” reveals Muldoon.
“We hope it will be as successful as our first book, The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual, of which we’ve sold over 30,000 copies in the last year alone.”
And to think that it could all have begun, and ended, in tears. While McGarry and Muldoon have welcomed the likes of Liam Neeson to The Dead Rabbit since opening for business in February 2013, on that auspicious night the fates and elements seemed to have it in for them.
“On our opening night we had a Nor’easter, which is a term used in the US for a big effing storm,” McGarry explains. “We were advised against opening, but we’d been delayed by Hurricane Sandy for a few months and we weren’t going to be delayed by a bit of snow.
“We had waited long enough. It was time to open. We swung open the doors at 5pm and we were absolutely slammed all night long. I remember being behind the bar when we were busy and just feeling an overwhelming sense of pride that we stuck it out and were finally there. The rest, as they say, is history.”