Dead Rabbit: 'We come from nothing. We were penniless but we made it and hope to be an inspiration...'
Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, the Belfast men behind New York's Dead Rabbit bar, talk to Emma Deighan about whiskey tours and Hollywood dreams
Bar owners Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry very much come as a pair.
It's easy to understand why the two north Belfast men are inseparable when they return from their home in New York and recall their adventure in getting where they are now. They are the founders and operators of The Dead Rabbit in New York City's financial district, named the Best Bar in the World.
But the journey towards opening their globally-renowned cocktail bar did have its hard times and setbacks.
That included two-and-a-half years of living on the breadline to secure their dream - while a hurricane thrown into the mix also delayed the opening by a further four months.
The Dead Rabbit finally launched in 2013.
Fast-forward six years and Sean and Jack are fresh from travelling around Ireland to detail the best whiskey establishments here in a book entitled From Barley To Blarney: A Whiskey Lover's Guide To Ireland.
"We'll never make a penny from the book," says Sean. "But that wasn't the reason for it. We did it because we wanted to do it."
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That statement is indicative of the success the two men have achieved in six years.
They've gone from living on $8 burrito deals while building their empire, which now includes a second bar - a Cuban-themed establishment called Blacktail - to taking time out to soak up the whiskey hotspots of Ireland. While launching the book in Dublin recently, Sean and Jack pledged US$10,000 (£7,700) to mental health charity, Aware. The choice of charity came about from an affinity the pair have with young people suffering from mental health issues here.
Jack, in particular, has never shied away discussing his own experiences with depression. "Having grown up in Ardoyne in north Belfast, where rates of depression and suicide are very high, we are very aware of the issues impacting the lives of people back home - and how mental health problems, if left untreated, can devastate families and communities. Over the years, I have had my own battle with depression and mental health.
"I'm fortunate that I have been able to access the support and services I have needed to aid my recovery, but not everyone is that fortunate.
"When the opportunity came to do the whiskey book, we wanted to use the money we raised for charity and we asked our Facebook channel to choose the mental health partner and they, overwhelmingly, chose Aware.
"We wanted to get behind mental health because of my experience with it. Even last night when I went home, there was a story on the news about a suicide.
"You hear it all the time. We really wanted to do what we could," he says.
Sean adds: "We come from nothing, absolutely nothing, and we were penniless. But we have made it. Everything could change but we hope that it doesn't and we hope to be an inspiration to these kids who are in these neighbourhoods."
Harking back to their younger years, when both worked their way around the Belfast bar circuit, Jack and Sean compare and contrast the US mindset with that in Belfast.
Jack, who has one sister and studied at St Mary's Grammar School in west Belfast, was first introduced to the bar scene when his uncle gave him a job at the Hunting Lodge on the Stewartstown Road.
"I started there when I was constantly asking my parents for a lend of money, money that you're never going to end up paying back.
"I think my mum had enough of it one day and said 'if you want something you need to go out and get a job'. I think I wanted a pair of trainers or something stupid, so my father's cousin, Sean Campbell, was running the place. My father spoke to him and I'd just received my National Insurance Number and that's where it started."
Jack then moved to Tatu on the Lisburn Road, where "I first saw cocktails being made" and developed a passion for the hospitality trade, inspired by former colleague Kieran Breen.
It was while working at the Merchant Hotel that he met Sean. "Sean showed me a few cocktail books and I went deeper and deeper into it. And that was how it started. That relationship developed into being business partners," continues Jack.
Sean's background is similar and both of them have always shared ambition and drive.
"Growing up in the Troubles, you felt like there was no escape. I always had aspirations to do bigger and better," says Sean.
"When I looked at TV and saw Hollywood stars I believed I could be like that. I knew I could escape, but I also know what it felt like when everything around me was negative.
"There was a whole self-doubt thing and my life only got better the day I started bar-tending. That was the vehicle that made everything else happen."
As well as The Dead Rabbit and Blacktail, they're also looking to the city of New Orleans for the location of another Dead Rabbit - or even a bar which "links Cuba with Ireland".
And their rags to riches story could also inspire a biopic, the pair reveal.
"We're taking the first steps towards it. We'll not say any more," Jack says, adding: "If you did that here, it would be crazy. New York is the right place to do that."
It's a theory that both agree on - the US is where dreams come true.
Sean, who has three sisters, and lives with his partner and two stepdaughters in New York, says: "When you talk about chances and making money, New York is a city where dreams can happen. You're allowed to think mad things over there."
Jack hastens to add: "They're very easily offended in America. My generation and Sean's, we've a thick skin.
"It just seems to me now that people are looking for something to take offence at. There was a zoo in America that had to release a statement for calling a seal fat because people were offended - it's just bonkers."
But they both love their life in New York. Jack is currently dating an American woman and plans to stay in the States, while Sean hints that he may return home to enjoy his retirement years.
"I would definitely come back and retire here.
"I'm still very Irish and very connected to here and it's only after seeing the whole length and breadth of the country during the whiskey tour that I really realised how much I love this country," he says.
From Barley to Blarney, a Whiskey Lover's Guide to Ireland is a portrait of 22 of Ireland's distilleries and their bottlings, 50 of its renowned pubs, as well as recipes for 12 original Irish whiskey cocktails.
It involved Jack and Sean travelling to all four corners of Ireland with fellow Irish native and Irish whiskey expert Tim Herlihy. It was written by Conor Kelly, who also wrote The Dead Rabbit: Mixology & Mayhem.
It wasn't a smooth ride, the pair admit. It was a two-month-long whirlwind tour in a VW bus driven by Jack's father. They logged over 4,000 miles, visited 111 pubs and every single working whiskey distillery on the island.
"It was like Big Brother, but in Big Brother those people don't know each other and can let it out," says Sean. "We had a photographer, Elaine Hill, and Jack got into her car for heat."
"The guy said there was heat but there was no heat in that van. I could see the floor," Jack says.
"You thought you were going so fast in the van because of the sound it was making, but people were walking past you and you weren't allowed to drive more than 100 miles per day or it would have a heart attack. That's why it took such a long time," Sean says.
Jack reveals that "everybody was cracking up with everyone" but reflecting on the experience at the launch at Liberties Distillery Dublin a few weeks back, he said: "You only remember the good times."
The big reveal of the book was attended by a who's who of bartending in Ireland.
Sean says it was an emotional affair.
"The support was incredible. I didn't expect to see big, important names. The thing that melted our hearts was that the people who featured in the book came. That was so heart-warming. It was very emotional.
"It's a legacy, this book. It's a gift back to Ireland. We get asked all the time to recommend to Americans what to do in Belfast and Ireland and now we have it in a book."
Remarking on the highlights, Sean says: "There were certain pubs that stood out. Jim O' The Mill in Tipperary was one of those and it only opened one night a week. You had to find it, off the beaten track and when you're there you're in someone's house and they're all just playing this big session. There's a big warm fire. There was a kid about 12 who played a tin whistle and then a session started behind him and it became really loud and it was a real partnering and the owner's wife gives you black pudding at night.
"I remember watching Southern Comfort ads when I was younger and they're all in the pub - it was like that. All the action was in one room. It was a special experience."
Among the other highlights were Curran's in Dingle where storytelling was the theme and O'Laughlin's in Co Clare, which served "whiskey coffees to die for".
And Irish coffees are another mutual passion Jack and Sean have. So much so it will be the theme of their next, and last, book.
"We want to do one more book and that will be about the Irish Coffee. It's a drink we fully believe in. The history is really rich.
"It was created by a guy from Castlederg and that's something we feel we need to promote. I want to tell his story and his family's story. We are pulling information together to put to the publisher," reveals Sean.
Looking around the Duke of York, Sean's favourite bar here, he thinks back to his days in Belfast and says: "This bar and the Merchant were what the Dead Rabbit was based on.
"The link to Belfast and our Irish fan base is very, very important to us. We take that Irish thing very seriously," he says.
Q What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A When we first started out, someone told me, ‘always listen to the building’ and that has always stayed with me. We approach that in terms of listening to the building but also our customers and what they want — you’ve got to be fluid in your thinking.
Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A Richard Branson once said, ‘if it’s not broke, fix it anyway’ and that’s exactly what we do with The Dead Rabbit and I think that’s a really important approach when starting out in business — be details-orientated. You also need perseverance; at the beginning we had a few very difficult years in New York — we were broke and really struggling but we had total faith in what we were doing.
Q What was your best business decision?
A Opening The Dead Rabbit, most definitely and taking that leap of faith.
Q If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A Before I got into cocktails, I had thought I wanted to be a geography teacher. It’s probably for the best. I don’t think I have enough patience to be a teacher.
Q What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A I went to Eleuthera in the Bahamas with my girlfriend Katie recently, and we’re going to Key West in Florida in a few weeks. We try to take short breaks quite regularly; when you live in New York, you need to, it’s such an intense city.
Q What are your hobbies/interests?
A Running is a huge hobby; I love the sense of freedom it gives me and the discipline too. I’m quite an anxious person and it helps to burn off excess energy.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Football; my team’s Man United, sadly.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I played hurling when I was younger, for Sarsfield and school clubs too.
Q. Can you recommend a book?
A. Start with Why? By Simon Sinek. The strapline is ‘how great leaders inspire everyone to take action’ but it’s about more than that; it helps you to understand the circle of ‘drama’ and ‘creative’ and how you can constantly drill down and assess the ‘why’ of everything you do and move away from drama into being creative.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. I had a normal upbringing. I kind of drifted through school until I went to St Mary’s Grammar School and I was doing quite well.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. The economy in New York is ok; the only thing Trump seems to be doing ok on is the economy but it is still challenging for businesses, particularly for the likes of higher end restaurants, where the margins are really tight. At home, there’s the uncertainty about Brexit but it’s good to see businesses getting on. Time will tell for both, I guess.