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SB meets… Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, Dead Rabbit

Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon of New York bar The Dead Rabbit on creating an Irish pub for the 21st century, the stigma of addiction, and why low calorie cocktails take the soul out of imbibing.

The Dead Rabbit’s Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon. Photo credit: Elaine Hill

What value do festivals such as Tales of the Cocktail bring to the wider bartending industry?
Jack: For me, it’s always humbling to see how our bars are received on the global level. [At Tales on Tour in Edinburgh] we spoke to a young bartender who’d travelled seven hours to come to our pop-up. Sometimes in the midst of the pressures associated with running at a bar at our level we get sidetracked with what’s important. Our whole mission statement is to be the best that we can be and to inspire others to do. Talent doesn’t get you to your goals. It’s consistent hard work and sacrifice. When you meet people who’ve traveled that far it reaffirms everything.

How do such events help the industry evolve?
Jack: They are hugely beneficial for the local bartending community and consumers alike. We had a programme in Belfast back in the mid- to late 2000’s called The Connoisseurs Club, which brought the absolute best in the business to Belfast to talk about their careers, what they do and how they achieved it. It made me realise that there was a career in this industry if you worked and studied hard.

What are you most excited about in terms of cocktail innovation?
Jack: I think the cocktail movement is beginning to crest at the moment. It’s a prerequisite to have great cocktails, hand-cut ice, fresh juices, homemade syrups. That’s not important any longer – what’s important is connecting with your ‘why’, and championing that. For us at The Dead Rabbit, we want to bring the Irish pub into the 21st century, we want an Irish pub to be the best bar in the world, and our guests embrace that. We do this by challenging every facet of our business model. Everything is scrutinised. The same for BlackTail – who’s ever been to a great Cuban bar with a challenging narrative? The most primitive thing we tap into is to give our guest a world-class experience through the details… The bathrooms, our decor, the seats they seat on, the napkin they use, our websites they browse, our social media they consume. Every. Single. Detail. What’s exciting for us in terms of innovation is growing our company, challenging our colleagues to inspire greatness; to continue challenging the status quo wherever that may lead us.

Which spirits categories are exciting you the most at the moment?
Jack: It’s hands down Irish whiskey. This plays into our narrative of bringing the Irish pub into the 21st century. Like the Irish Pub, Irish whiskey has been pigeonholed as an inferior product. Something you only drink in a terrible Irish Coffee or have on St. Patrick’s Day. When we opened The Dead Rabbit, we wanted to champion our native spirit and illustrate the diversity and versatility the category as a whole had to offer. We’re actually writing a book on Irish whiskey, Irish pubs and Irish whiskey cocktails. So stay tuned for that.

Would you like to own your own spirits brand?
Sean: Yes, one day, it would have to be an Irish whiskey for Dead Rabbit and rum for BlackTail.

There has been a lot of focus on self-care within the bartending industry. What do you think is this so important?
Jack: It’s a sign of our industry maturing. There are pros and cons with this. I liken it to the snooker world. You had the entertaining days of Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins who was winning world titles when drunk. Nowadays, the snooker game has matured and it’s all about athleticism, discipline and control. The bartending industry draws parallels with this. It was brilliant to party all the time and travel the world going bananas when we started out, but we’re seeing people pass away, people suffering with their personal lives and that’s no laughing matter. I think we, as an industry, have started to treat this as a career and not a hobby. We’re looking at the long game and taking care of ourselves. I still feel we’ve a lot of work to do in regards to being role models for the next generation of bartenders and also creating productive avenues of dialogue and resources for people to get help they need.

Is the industry being frank and open enough when it comes to issues such as mental health and addiction? What needs to be done?
Jack: I think we’re getting there. We’ve at least opened the door to start having the conversations. It’s hard because a lot of people in our industry have issues and when people begin to discuss these issues openly I’ve found you can get a lot of kick back. It’s either people are very supportive or they’re like, ‘you can’t talk about that’. There’s still quite a lot of stigma surrounding addiction and mental health in general and that’s wrong. We need to change that. The first part of that process is talking and being open, and that’s beginning to happen. After that, it’s about restructuring our industry so that we’ve got avenues and resources to help deal with this. The latter is in the very early stages. If you look at it, it’s all well and good saying, ‘I’m suffering from depression’ or ‘I’m an addict’, but if we can’t connect the dots with treatment then nothing is progressing. Particularly from the US perspective, because most bartenders don’t have health insurance. So we’ve still got a huge strides to make, but at least we’re going in the right direction.

Jack, I understand that you stopped drinking a year or so ago. Could you tell me why that came to be, and what the benefits have been? How do you balance sobriety with the demands of your career?
Jack: I stopped drinking over 14 months ago. My last drinking session nearly killed me and it was my rock bottom. It was then that I finally realised I needed to pivot towards tackling my issues and demons as opposed to running away from them. I was never addicted to the taste of alcohol, I was addicted to not feeling anything. Removing that veneer of alcohol has enabled me to start looking introspectively at the issues and talk to professionals to get me back on track. It’s been a lot of work. It’s been over 10 hours a week for a year now but I’m close to finishing that up and moving into an oversight pattern, just keeping an eye on things. It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. The first few months were very tough but I’m finding things easier with time. The benefits have been manifold with being in the best shape mentally, physically and spiritually that I’ve ever been in. I’m focused on my work both in the businesses and myself personally. I’m focused on my running, dogs, and spending time with family and friends. I still have moments of relapsing behavioural traits, but being sober and clear I’m able to quickly move past them and not let them paralyse me.

There’s been a lot of talk about having ‘adult conversation’ in terms of alcohol legislation. Brands are bringing out packaging with nutritional information, MUP is a talking point in the UK. Does the industry need a grown-up voice?
Jack: I mean – again pros and cons. I think it’s advantageous to know exactly what’s in your products but where do we draw the line? I heard a guest coming in recently asking for a low calorie cocktail. That takes a bit of the soul of it for me. Zero calorie cocktails, diet whiskey… I mean, where does it stop? Yes, I think we need a grown voice but sometimes grown-ups are no fun. A bar is the third place – first place is the home place, second place is the work place. We go to the third place to seek refuge and rejuvenate. Don’t make the third place fucking boring. I see a quote that’s like this – ‘Truth is like poetry, and everyone fucking hates poetry’.

What is the most important lesson you have learned in your career to date?
Sean: Nothing comes easy, patience is a virtue. That’s what I was told when I came to New York. It’s especially important here – you need to work hard, and never expect things to come to you. You have to work for what you want.

What advice would you give to bartenders that are just starting out?
Jack: I read a lot, and one of the best quotes I’ve heard is from Steve Jobs, who said ‘stay hungry and stay foolish’. For me, that [means] ‘always stay in student mode’, whatever position in our industry you command. For bartenders in particular, it’s important to understand the history before you start interpreting the future. At the same time however, have a fucking life. I missed a significant part of my youth, from 16-26, because I was 100% focused on work. Part of me regrets that, but I wouldn’t change it as it’s made me who I am. Get out and enjoy the world. Get different perspectives. Broaden your horizons..

Will you ever launch a bar in the UK?
Sean: Maybe, it would have to be London. London’s a city that’s big, diverse, and has a great cocktail scene.

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