Ask anyone in Manhattan for directions to the Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog and you’ll not be disappointed. For it’s a famous watering hole now having won the World’s Best Cocktail Menu (twice) and the World’s Best Bar (once – so far).
Not bad for a bar only opened in 2010 by Irishmen Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, originally from the Merchant Hotel in Belfast.
The pair were in Dublin in a cocktail collaboration with the Westbury Hotel and to speak at the LVA seminar on ‘Your Pub’s Future’.
Both spent their formative cocktail-making years in Belfast’s award-winning Merchant Hotel, declared the World’s Best Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail 2010.
The Merchant Hotel had a huge influence on them.
“Sean had worked at The Merchant since it opened and I was focused on more academic stuff” recalls Jack, “but when I saw what Sean was doing I wanted to get to that level.
“I asked to work alongside him and realised that if I put all my energy into it we could be very good at it.”
“The Merchant was the most-awarded cocktail bar – certainly one of them – winning international cocktail awards.”
As the work they’d put into the bar came to fruition, it became the first bar ever to be voted Worlds Best Hotel bar back in 2009, going on to be the first bar outside New York to be awarded World’s Best Cocktail Bar in 2010.
The pair left in 2010 to head West, the result of a timely investment. One of their Merchant regulars living nearby worked in both Belfast and New York’s stock exchange.
“If you’re able to do the same thing in NY as you do in Belfast you’ll get so much more opportunity,” he advised before offering to personally invest in their operation if they crossed the pond.
“We’d introduced him to cocktails,” says Jack, “Having got to know us over two years he felt that we’d thrive in a big city like NY or London.
“Both of us knew we’d come to the end of our time with the Merchant so we went for the opportunity.”
They drew up plans for the Dead Rabbit over two-and-a-half years, during which time they’d to earn their keep working New York’s bars.
“We also got help from Danny McDonald, a NY-based friend who knew the trade,” Sean explains, “Danny helped us with business partners who became investment partners.”
“Listen to the building”
Now they’d the bar, they’d to figure out the idea.
“We set out to make the world’s best cocktail bar pub,” says Sean, “When we opened we wanted a world-class Irish whiskey selection (and now have over 210 whiskeys) in addition to well-trained bartenders.”
Early on, they were advised by another Irish businessman, Jim Meehan, to “listen to the building”.
When they did, they realised that people coming out to a bar wanted something slightly edgier and different.
“In the US, an Irish bar is synonymous with a sports bar, not with a great quality pub.
“After the Merchant, we knew we could build an Irish pub with great quality pub cocktails. We wanted our cocktail bar to have great Irish personality.”
A ‘cocktail bartender’ can be very different from a ‘bartender’ and they wanted great personalities.
Dead Rabbit inspiration
Belfast’s Merchant has a quality image.
As barmen at the time, they weren’t allowed to drink in it themselves so they went to an Irish pub just down the street – The Duke of York.
“It was simply a beer bar with a massive selection of whiskeys” recalls Jack, “no airs and graces, it was relaxing and comfortable with mixed clientele and it attracted all walks of life.
“We therefore wanted to create that type of environment with cocktails.”
So a bar having the laid-back comfort of the Duke of York with quality cocktails like those of the more formal Merchant Hotel seemed like a good combination.
“Whatever you invent, a bar needs longevity,” believes Sean, “Hotel bars until the Merchant were very stuffy. Not fun places to go. Stiff,” he remembers, “Young people didn’t go to hotel bars.
“Then The Merchant came along. Instead of a hotel cocktail bar, we made a cocktail bar in a hotel, employing a different mindset – no white gloves. Doing mixology in a 5-star environment? Nobody was doing that in 2006.”
For that to work in NY where there’s no such thing as a cocktail bar pub, it has to be done well.
“What we were doing there that was different from a pub perspective was cocktails, our Unique Point of Difference.”
Of course the pair were bringing Irish hospitality to the mix too.
“Everybody’s welcome, just like the Duke of York,” says Jack.
“Every cocktail bar in NY heretofore was a serious place, so we brought the fun element to make Dead Rabbit an Irish cocktail bar.
“We wanted it to be devoid of pretension, to serve great cocktails with no bullshit.”
The pair studied New York’s history to discover when the Irish and cocktails first met.
Following the famine in the 1850s some emigrants settled in NY to find themselves part of a bartending movement just half-a-mile away on Broadway. It soon became the Golden Age of Bartending.
“We’ve an area in Lower Manhattan which has got a story going back to the mid-1800s,” says Sean, “We Googled a list of names for the gangs of New York at the time and found one of the gangs was known as the Dead Rabbit gang.”
Their bar looks old, being part of a 200 year-old building on one of the oldest blocks in Manhattan, the Francis Tavern historical block.
“It’s an old story we’re telling, a 200 year-old one,” adds Jack, “We’re also in the area where it all took place – it’s got attitude.”
In New York craft beer is exploding to the point where it’s now responsible for 12-13% of beer sales, says Jack, “There’s also been an explosion in bitters, with cocktails making up 40-43% of our sales.”
But Sean points out the downside.
“Food,” he explained, “is costing us money but we couldn’t survive without it. Some 32% of our business is food. We spend about $40,000 a week on it. A lot of tourists come in here, so we serve food all day and night.
Marketing The Dead Rabbit
“The Dead Rabbit is an Irish bar ‘with attitude’,” explains Jack, “We’ve DJs there and we’ve food.”
They spend about $250,000 a year on branding and promotion.
“It’s illegal to get brand support from suppliers, so we spend $88,000 a year on cocktail menus,” explains Sean. Social media plays its part too.
And by partnering with The Westbury Hotel for a residency here, for example, they take their bar to the people and bring visibility to the Dead Rabbit brand.
Such ventures give people a flavour of what they do.
Claridges in London has even copied their bar.
“We take risks with our voice, our imagery and that’s what ‘s different,” believes Sean, “We win a lot of awards because we’re like that. It brings a lot of people to our bar. Being one of the world’s Top 50 Bars is worth $1 million a year to us.”
And there’s more.
This trip, the Dead Rabbit duo are also visiting a number of distilleries here collaborating together on a book – From Barley to Blarney – a whiskey lover’s guide to Ireland – which sees them travelling around Ireland for 16 days.
“We’re visiting new distilleries, old distilleries and those distilleries about to open,” Sean tells me.
The forthcoming book will list the best pubs in and around the distilleries.
“150 pubs have to be whittled down to the 50 Best in Ireland close to distilleries,” says Sean.
Ah, who’d envy them?
Form an orderly queue there….