Dead Rabbit founders: ‘NYC is the city of opportunity’By Owen Bellwood
The duo behind The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail on their ascent to the top of the bartending world and plans to open a third venue in New York City.
*This feature was originally published in the March 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, founders of famed New York bars The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail, grew up 17 years apart in the same area of Belfast, and both found their first taste of bartending in the city.
“I was growing up in Belfast during The Troubles and it was very hard to get a job,” Muldoon recalls. After being trained behind the stick in Ireland, Muldoon found himself looking for seasonal bartending work in Scotland. “I was working in this three-star hotel outside Aberdeen as a silver service waiter – can you believe it?”
His time in the hotel gave Muldoon his first real experience behind a bar, and he soon found himself working around the world. After bartending on cruise ships and launching his own cocktail consultancy firm, Muldoon was headhunted by Belfast’s five-star Merchant Hotel. This was all before his Dead Rabbit partner had set foot behind a bar.
McGarry was 15 when he started work at his cousin’s Belfast bar. “I followed my cousin around a couple of bars that he was managing,” the now 30-year-old McGarry explains. “I left him to go and work in a bar called Tatu, and that was where I came across Kieran Breen.”
Breen had worked with Muldoon at the Merchant Hotel and took McGarry to an event there called The Connoisseur’s Club, where some of the biggest names in bartending hosted talks and workshops. “We would invite a serious bartender to guest bartend,” Muldoon remembers. “We had all the top bartenders, like Sasha Petraske, Audrey Saunders and Dale DeGroff. Back then, nobody was doing anything like that.”
When McGarry visited The Connoisseur’s Club and met Muldoon, he realised he wanted to make a career of bartending, and to do so he wanted to work with the best. “In Ireland at that time, Sean was the best,” says McGarry. He requested a job on the spot, and within a year, he joined the Merchant, where the pair would become an unstoppable force.
With The Connoisseur’s Club bringing in top bartending talent, and as the venue’s prowess in cocktail making developed, the Merchant Hotel’s bar quickly became known as one of the best in Ireland. “It was a bar in Belfast that was really trying hard,” says Muldoon. “People had seen the effort we were putting in and respected that.”
But as the pair went from strength to strength, their relationship with the hotel began to sour. According to Muldoon: “We were starting to become foreigners in the hotel. When we won World’s Best Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2010, I remember texting the general manager. He didn’t even reply because he didn’t want us to win.”
Muldoon and McGarry then turned to an investor who had seen their progress at the Merchant. “He knew that we were too big for Belfast,” Muldoon explains. “He said to me, ‘Belfast doesn’t understand you guys. If you ever come to New York I’ll invest in you’.” The pair were given one chance to come up with a concept; something nobody had ever seen before.
At that time, Muldoon, McGarry and other bartenders from the Merchant became regulars at The Duke of York, a pub down the street from the hotel. “Nobody wanted to hang out in a five-star hotel,” says Muldoon. “We were all in the Duke of York and this girl said to me, ‘Everybody loves the cocktails in the Merchant but nobody likes the stiffness of a hotel bar. If you could ever make those cocktails in a bar like this, that’s a winner’.”
It’s in that vein that they launched The Dead Rabbit, renowned for its killer cocktails and laid-back environment.
Five years after opening, and having been named World’s Best Cocktail Bar by Tales of the Cocktail and World’s 50 Best Bars, The Dead Rabbit is embarking on a major expansion and facelift. “The refurbishment is coming from the fact that the bar is far too busy,” explains McGarry. By expanding into an adjacent building, they will improve the kitchen, seating areas, bartending stations and, most importantly for them, staff facilities and back-of-house areas.
“Looking after our staff is something we put an awful lot of emphasis on,” McGarry stresses. When they moved to America, they were shocked by the country’s hiring-and-firing mentality. “We’re obviously coming from a European background so we will hire somebody, look after them and train them as best we can,” says McGarry.
The menu will be refreshed too. The bar’s elaborate comic book menus have become a symbol for its attention to detail, and this year the sixth and final edition will launch.
How do Muldoon and McGarry plan to top the series? “Has Jack told you about the film?” Muldoon asks me. Their ‘simple’ answer is to transform their comic books into a movie, bringing ‘The Rabbit’ character to life. They are finalising plans for the elaborate concept, which includes designing sets, auditioning actors and creating cocktails for the unique movie menu.
Five minutes’ walk from The Dead Rabbit you’ll find the pair’s second venue, BlackTail, on the banks of the Hudson River. The Cuban-themed rum bar, which was named Best New Opening at last year’s World’s 50 Best Bars, saw the pair use all their experience from The Dead Rabbit to transform the fortunes of a venue that was making less than US$3,000 a week. Muldoon believes the key to their success lies in the unique concepts they adopt for each venue. Dead Rabbit is rooted in the 1850s, a time when thousands of Irish immigrants arrived in New York, and BlackTail is inspired by a fleet of Prohibition-era seaplanes, which would transport discerning drinkers across America and into Cuba.
“A lot of New Yorkers embrace our concepts because it’s their history as much as ours,” Muldoon says. “Dead Rabbit is an Irish story, but it’s grounded in New York, and BlackTail is a Cuban story that’s grounded here.”
BlackTail is housed in the expansive Pier A, a building complex in downtown Manhattan that covers 28,000 square feet and includes what Muldoon calls “the most under-utilised bar space in the whole of Manhattan”.
Muldoon and McGarry have plans to take over this space soon, and they are working on a design that will transform the under-utilised bar. “The space looks right out at the Statue of Liberty and over the Hudson. There’s room for an amazing bar there and that’s going to be our next project,” says Muldoon.
The pair’s Belfast-based design team will be flying to New York in the coming weeks to start work on the new project, which they hope to open before the end of the year. But before digging out the history books in search of a concept for their third venue, Muldoon takes a moment to thank the city that has helped drive their success.
“I do think that the sky is the limit, it really is,” he claims. “New York really is the city of opportunity; we would never have had the same opportunities in Ireland or in the UK that we get over here.”