World’s Best New Cocktail Bar, World’s Best Cocktail Menu and International Bartender of the Year. You don’t pick up the three most coveted awards in one evening at Tales of the Cocktail, the most prestigious cocktail ceremony in the world, for nothing. Particularly when your bar has been only open for four months. But The Dead Rabbit is no ordinary bar and its bar manager, Jack McGarry, is no ordinary bartender. Here, the boy from Belfast gives us some insight into why he and business partner Sean Muldoon have taken the global bar scene by storm.
The first part of Jack McGarry’s interview for issue 10 of The Cocktail Lovers magazine – print issue out now. Order your copy here
This month it will be one year since you and Sean Muldoon opened the Dead Rabbit, what’s the most memorable thing that’s happened to you during those 365 days?
We have had many a special night since the bar opened. Obviously our whole Tales of the Cocktail experience was fantastic, with both the success of the Pop-up bar we co-ordinated in conjunction with PRUSA and IDL, and obviously picking up the three awards during the Spirited Dinner. However, when it comes to the bar, my fondest memory was our first night of live service on Feburary 12th. We opened when a Nor’easter came to visit. It’s essentially a really bad snow storm. We opened against the advice of all our investors and it really epitomozied our whole journey. The bar opened against all odds. The journey that Sean and I went through wasn’t a smooth one. It felt like a marathon of 100m hurdles. Just when we thought we had scaled yet another hurdle a higher one appeared to set us back, but we never gave in and always remained resolute. We knew we had an amazing concept, a relevant and fresh approach, a great beverage program and a good location. So when we opened that night the weather outside was atrocious, but we thought, ‘hey we just had Hurricane Sandy so a bit of snow wont hurt us’. We also looked at it as another soft opening, because we thought it wouldn’t be too busy. However, we were wrong – very, very wrong. We swung the doors open at 5pm and the bar didn’t stop. It was a really special night for me, because all our resilience had paid off and we were watching the three years of our life that we invested this project come remunerate us in spades. It was a really emotional.
For those who haven’t been there, please describe the look and feel of The Dead Rabbit?
We have a five-storey townhouse that dates from 1828. It is one of a group of three buildings on the block that was constructed by Edward Remsen and Obadiah Holmes. Ours is the best preserved of the group and contains many characteristics of late Federal style commercial architecture. The building is faced with Flemish bond brickwork and the three upper floors retain the original window openings with stone sills and lintels. It originally served as a ‘counting house’ built along the water’s edge. These buildings served New York’s active port and functioned as stores, storerooms and accounting offices for early 19th century merchants.
The ground floor:
We have the ground floor, which houses the open-all-day ‘Taproom’ that specialises in artisan draft beer, three types of bottled punches and the largest, if not one of the largest, selections of Irish Whiskey in the US (we currently have over 65). We also have one of the best Irish coffees in the world and a fantastic Hot Irish Whiskey Punch. We also serve a 17th century style of drinks known as ‘Pop-Ins’, which are essentially historically accurate beer and shot styled drinks.
We serve traditional British and Irish fare, such as pies, Scotch eggs, fish ‘n’ chips, sausage rolls and beef stew. The Taproom is based on the immigrant filled taverns which would have been prevalent on Water Street during the mid 19th century, and because of this, we have included the prominent features of those types of bars on this floor. We have the sawdust strewn floors and the quintessential long narrow bar. We have our grocery featuring walls adorned with literature from the era, and although we have 30 or so bar seats on this floor, there is, as expected, a lot of standing, as the bars back then would have been all standing bars.
We also wanted this to resemble a classic Irish pub like the ones you would find in the isolated parts of Ireland. That’s why you’ll see things like the St. Brigid’s Cross, which will protect us from fire and evil, a Holy Water Font, a Sacred Heart of Jesus picture, a set of horse shoes, crossed hurling sticks and all of our beams are covered in pictures of the area both Sean and I where born.
One area, which we dedicated this year was Henry’s Corner. It’s what you see as soon as you walk into the Taproom. You are greeted with a London Street sign, ‘Sir Henry’s Road’, our shrine of Henry on the far end of the bar and also a painting of Henry, which was done by one of our regulars. You see, Henry Besant represented everything that we wanted the Taproom to stand for: hospitality, warmth, no bullshit and fun. He was also a massive influence in what both myself and Sean’s envisioned when It came to creating TDR. We both thought; ‘what would Henry like?’ The Taproom is a Henry type of joint and his corner is my favourite place in the entire bar. You’ll see me there drinking Guinness and having a shot of Olmeca Altos and I don’t even like Tequila, but don’t tell Henry.
Our second floor is where you will find the cocktail-centric ‘Parlor’ which is our no reservations sit-down-only space. The upstairs drinks menu takes our customers on a historical journey through what is now the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, from 1848-1884, beginning with an illustrated ‘map’ filled with original sketches of events and characters from the period. The menu consists of 72 drinks, based loosely on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 reprint of Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide, utilizing literature from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, notably William Schmidt (The Flowing Bowl 1892), William Terrington (Cooling Cups & Dainty Drinks, 1869), Louis Fouquet (Bariana, 1896), and was also inspired by Dave Wondrich’s books. Our Parlor is our interpretation of the sporting-mans cocktail lounge, which had been a feature on Lower Broadway during the mid to late 1800s. Again, every single element of this type of bar was thoroughly researched, and you have a large cast iron American Bald Eagle, a portrait of George Washington and pictures of hunting scenes, bar knuckle boxers, such as John Sullivan, and literary icons of the time, such as Walt Whitman; all features of those types of bars. We also have a resident piano for our ragtime pianist Terry Waldo who plays on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Occasional Room:
On the third floor the ‘Occasional Room’ is situated, which is a private event space; a bit more modern in feel, as it’s used for not only parties and events, but for meetings, presentations, product launches and cocktail competitions. It is a multi-purpose space in that it serves as an overflow/waiting room for the Parlor on Thursday and Friday nights, as well as also becoming a bit more independent of the other floors since we have started our DJ there on both nights. You will commonly see parties of up to 15 people head up there and have a bit of a party on both nights. In keeping with The Dead Rabbit’s 19th century atmosphere however, we have vintage limited-edition prints of harbor scenes from the mid-1800s lining the walls.
What’s the rationale behind The Dead Rabbit?
The rationale for naming each floor the ‘Taproom’, ‘Parlor’ and ‘Occasional’ is due to coming across Christine Sismondo’s, ‘America Walks Into a Bar; A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops’. It’s here where we came across these three different areas, which would have comprised a typical 18th century Tavern. You would have the Taproom, which would have traditionally served the yeoman, the Parlor which was a bit more sophisticated, and the Occasional, which would have served as a meeting space or for one-off events.
How did two chaps from Belfast find themselves setting up a bar in New York?
It was during our time at The Merchant Hotel that a regular customer of ours called Conor Allen first took notice of what we were doing. He was based five weeks out of every six in New York and the week he was not in New York he was in Belfast. He was thoroughly impressed by Sean’s vision and my bartending and drinks. He felt that we had reached our peak in Belfast and that there was nothing left to do apart from win more awards. He thought that if were able to replicate what we done in Belfast in New York that the opportunities would be limitless. He asked if we would be interested in moving to New York, and although this daunted us at first, we both felt our time in The Merchant was up and that it was time to move on.
Our brief was simple: we had one chance and one chance only to get this right. If we got it right first time, other opportunities would follow; if not we would return home with three years New York experience under our belt. We knew we had to get it right. We wanted to create a cocktail bar of the 21st century – something that wouldn’t be here today and gone tomorrow. We wanted to create something that would have longevity. We looked at our two favourite bars in Belfast: The Bar at The Merchant Hotel that favoured the style of bar we worked in (a world class cocktail bar) and The Duke of York, which was the style of bar we drank in (a down-to-earth Irish Pub). We wanted to bring these two ideas together in one building in a way that made sense.
That was the idea, describe how The Dead Rabbit became a reality?
First, the history:
We then started to look at New York history trying to discover when Irish bar culture met high-end cocktail culture and the period of time when it took place was 1845 to 1865 in Downtown Manhattan. In the famine years An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) 1845-1851 a million Irish immigrants walked through the gates of South Street Seaport, which was then known as the Port Authority of New York. They settled in and around that area that was known as the Fourth Ward back then up as far as the Five Points, which was known Bloody Sixth Ward. The distance between the two wards was around a kilometer. At the same time on Lower Broadway between Bowling Green and City Hall a serious bartending movement was taking place. Celebrity bartenders of the day such as Orsamus Willard, Shed Sterling, Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson were working in the first luxury hotels in Manhattan such as the City Hotel & Astor House Hotel and finest sporting mans cocktail lounges.
To further elaborate on the history of the area and how relevant our story is there: bbefore Castle Clinton became an immigration centre in 1855, the ships bringing famine survivors from Ireland would have docked in the area that is now the South Street Seaport, which is just 900 metres east of our site. It’s estimated that over half a million Irish immigrants entered the US there between 1846 and 1851. Those who survived the arduous three-month transatlantic crossing – and there were many, many who didn’t – quickly realised that life in America was also going to be a battle for survival. The South Street Seaport was then part of the neighbourhood known as the Fourth Ward and was regarded as being the only rival to the adjacent Five Points area in its triple distinction of filth, poverty, and vice.
Water Street itself was the highest crime area in all of New York City and was festooned with brothels, dance halls, boarding houses and cheap watering holes. A travel guide of the day called it ‘the most violent street on the continent’; another warned readers to ‘absolutely steer clear of it after dark’; whereas a more recent commentator stated that it was ‘a thoroughfare of vice and iniquity to challenge the imagination of the most graphic Victorian preacher.’ Street gangs were as aplenty there as they were in the Five Points and river piracy, murder and general mayhem was commonplace. Just right for The Dead Rabbit then!
From 1848 until 1858 Pete Williams ran a lowly gin joint called The Slaughterhouse Point on the intersection of James Street and Water Street. It served as the base of operations for the notorious Daybreak Boys, one of the most treacherous band of killers ever to prowl Manhattan’s East Side docks.
Then there was The Hole in the Wall, which once stood on the site at number 279 Water Street – where the Bridge Cafe now operates. This was ruled with an iron hand by a six-foot Englishwoman called ‘Gallus’ Mag. She would bite off the ears of misbehaving patrons and pickle them for posterity in a large bottle of alcohol, which she left it in plain sight for all to see as a kind of trophy case behind the bar, and an ominous warning for any patron with a penchant for belligerence. It was a favourite hangout of ruthless gang leader Sadie the Goat until she got into an argument with Mag who responded by biting her ear off too, adding it to her collection. The Hole in the Wall closed down in 1855 after seven murders were committed there in the space of three months. One of those murders was the well-documented case of Patsy the Barber, who got into a fight with fellow Daybreak Boy gang member Slobbery Jim. Slobbery Jim had ended up cutting Patsy the Barber’s throat before ‘stomping’ him to death with his hobnail boots in plain view of everyone who was there.
In 1863, 273 Water Street was purchased by Christopher Keyburn (aka ‘Kit’ Burns), who was one of the founders of the Dead Rabbits gang. He opened a dance hall in the house called Sportsmen’s Hall where he offered a variety of distractions, including gambling, bare knuckle boxing, dancing, drinking, but most notoriously – rat and dog fights. For nearly two decades it was also a central meeting place for the New York underworld in the Bowery and Fourth Ward areas, in particular, The Slaughter House Gang and their leader George ‘Snatcham’Leese, until it was finally closed in 1870.
Tommy Hadden was another leader of The Dead Rabbits who owned a popular dive bar around the corner at what was once Number 10 Cherry Street which had been frequented by many underworld figures throughout its existence. Both he and Burns frequently returned to the Five Points to lead the Dead Rabbits on forays well into the 1850s and 1960s. His bar at Cherry Street was next door to Dan Kerrigan’s, a prize-fighter and one-time chairman of the Tammany Hall General Committee, and had been instrumental in the 1855 murder of William “Bill the Butcher” Poole.
Next, making the history relevant to a modern audience:
We were cognizant therefore that if our story was to have relevance, we had to find a building in that area – preferably built before or during that timeframe – somewhere we could retell these stories. We found a five-storey townhouse on Water Street and it was built in 1828 so that ticked all the correct boxes. We could have our Irish immigrant bar on the ground floor which would have a sawdust strewn floor, a long narrow bar, the largest Irish whiskey selection in New York City, oysters, Grog and a Grocery.
Our first floor would be the Parlor i.e. a sophisticated sporting mans cocktail lounge reminiscent of the ones you would have found on Broadway. Our third floor Occasional Room would be a room for meetings and private events.
Even though we are both Irish, we would describe The Dead Rabbit as a New York Irish Bar, meaning that the story is specific to New York and, in particular, the area of New York that the bar is located in. New Yorkers can see that it is very Irish-influenced, but we do not believe that they would consider it an Irish bar in the typical sense. The Dead Rabbit story cannot be copied or told in some other city, because it simply wouldn’t work.
Why The Dead Rabbit?
The Dead Rabbit is named after John Morrissey.
Consider the life and times of John Morrissey: bare-knuckler, roustabout, gang leader, gambler, and politician. He lived barely half a century, from 1831 to 1878, yet his life in many ways embodied the epic journey of impoverished Irish immigrants from the tradition-bound, famine-ravaged parishes of rural Ireland to the jam-packed precincts of New York, the fastest-growing urban agglomeration on the North American continent.
Born in Tipperary, Ireland, Morrissey came as a young child with his parents to Troy, New York. He arrived in Manhattan at the age of 18. Brash, well-built, and fearless; he could justly claim for himself the self-description penned by Walt Whitman in Song of Myself: “Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding/No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them/No more modest than immodest.”
Morrissey was not one to stand in line, hat in hand awaiting the kindness of strangers. Upon his arrival, he barged his way into the Empire Club at 24 Park Row, saloon-cum-headquarters of Captain Isaiah Rynders, and started a fight. A stalwart of Tammany Hall, Rynders was suitably impressed. He recruited Morrissey as immigrant ‘runner’ (a thug who took charge of those just off the boat and, more often than not, fleeced them of whatever they had) and ‘shoulder-hitter’ (an enforcer who made sure voters cast their ballots the way the party bosses wanted).
From an early stage, he earned the moniker ‘Old Smoke‘ when his opponent knocked him over a hot stove and pinned him atop the burning coals. Morrissey managed to get back on his feet. Clad in his smouldering coat, he gave his foe a thorough thrashing.
You see it was John Morrissey who brought our idea together, as he lived both in the immigrant filled taverns of Water Street and evolved to the sporting fraternity to befriend Jerry Thomas, and actually operating gambling saloons on Broadway.
Our next menu is dedicated to him and its going to be our best menu yet.
You have 72 cocktails on the first Dead Rabbit menu, how did you go about devising such an extensive list?
As I said above our Parlor cocktail menu takes you on a historical journey through what is now the Financial District of Lower Manhattan from 1848-1884, beginning with an illustrated map filled with original sketches of events and characters from that period. The menu consists of 72 drinks (and a further 10 of a seasonal insert menu). The menu itself is based loosely on Herbet Asbury’s 1928 reprint of Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide, but using literature from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, notably William Schmidt (The Flowing Bowl, 1892), William Terrington (Cooling Cups & Dainty Drinks, 1869), Louis Fouquet (Bariana, 1896) and also inspired by Dave Wondrich’s Books (Imbibe & ‘Punch).
Punch is the pivotal source for our beverage program, not only due to the historical connection of George Washington consuming Arrack Punch in Fraunces Tavern (the historical block where The Dead Rabbit resides) on December 4th, 1783, as he bade farewell to his officers of the Continental Army after British troops evacuated New York. It’s also due to the fact that the Punch bowl is the grandfather of the mixed drink family; it ruled from the middle of the 17th century right through to the middle of the 19th century and it inspired so many other styles of drinks.
Punch is definitely what inspired me to create the program we have here at The Dead Rabbit. My Eureka moment, if you will, came when I was reading Dave Wondrich’s book called Imbibe when he described a punch drinking scene. “At its peak, the ritual of the Punch Bowl was a secular communion, welding a group of good fellows into a temporary sodality whose values superseded all others.” I really loved that quote and the fact that there was no pretension about it- everyone there was there to drink and to have some fun, which to me is what drinking in bars is all about.
Punch is said to be an English creation. Whilst the English East India Company were settling into India and the surrounding countries during the 17th century, it was the American who endorsed it and developed it. We also have the historical connection with Fraunces Tavern (The Dead Rabbit is located on the Fraunces Tavern historical block) where George Washington gave his Farewell Speech on December 4th, 1783 and during the ceremony they downed copious amounts of Arrack Punch, the very drink the English East India Company have been credited with creating.
It is naturally the very first drink on our menu. The menu is 12 categories strong with each category consisting of six drinks. Punch is the first section, as it ruled the kingdom of mixed drinks from the 1670s to the 1850s and all the other styles of mixed drinks known today can be more or less traced back to it. After that, Punches became shortened, which then begat Sours and Fizzes, Daisys & Fixes and so on. Each category of our mixed drink menu is also a reflection of how that category started out and how it developed i.e. the Arrack Punch of the 17th century and then the last documented popular punch, the Pisco Punch, which was popular during the 1840s and 1850s gold rush era of San Francisco.
How long did it take to research such a specific menu?
The research process for the menu covered a period in excess of a year and a half. I had amassed numerous pieces of literary works covering 17th, 18th and 19th century drinking patterns. It was getting close to the time we had to send the menu off to print in order for it to be ready for our opening. My research and its expanse, created a great deal of tension between me and Sean. Sean believed I was taking way too long reading and not recreating the drinks of the time. I was coming from the standpoint that no-one had ever created a program like this before, and I had to make sure it was as historically accurate as I could.
The boiling point came when we were drinking in a bar called Swift. We both erupted and Sean said he didn’t believe I was the bartender I used to be and that I was spending way too much time reading and not producing drinks. The very next day I moved from the research element to drinks development. The drinks development period took a year and I turned our apartment into a workshop. I would get up at 9-10 in the morning and make drinks constantly for 10-12 hours. Sean would come home from work and I would be drunk as a skunk. However, I would have made the drinks I was working on for the day and we would advise each other from that point.
Having tested hundreds old recipes, I knew instinctively if a drink was going to work or not, and when I picked a drink that was going to work, I would work on it until it tasted right. This process could run as short as 5-10 efforts right up to 70 or 80 attempts. Our sole focus was always to have the best tasting drinks possible and to have a resultant menu which was accommodating for both the cocktail novice and the cocktail connoisseur.
Which drink are you proudest of?
It would be hard for me to pinpoint one single drink which I’m most proud of, but I’m delighted with how the New Yorkers have taken to our program. The aspect of the menu I’m most impressed with is the amount of Irish whiskey we are selling. Drinks such as the Bankers, Improved Irish Whiskey Cocktail, Tipperary and Evening Daisy are amongst the best sellers, and it’s something I intend to built on and strengthen. My favorite drink of the past is a drink that’s not even on the menu and it’s one I haven’t got bored of called The Turf Club. But my all-time, go to my death-bed drink, is easily a pint of Guinness with a Redbreast 12 year old chaser.
Next week when the new cocktail menu launches: Jack McGarry on why he thinks The Dead Rabbit has been such a huge success, being a perfectionist and how his style has evolved since starting out