Few bars have opened globally in the last decade with the kind of hype that followed Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry around in the lead up to their first New York venture: The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog. Despite lengthy delays in opening their Water Street property — one that had taken them several years to find in the Financial District — interest from the media and many in the bar industry who had followed their careers closely never wavered.
Before The Rabbit, from 2006 to 2010, Muldoon and McGarry carved out an international reputation at the Merchant Hotel in their hometown of Belfast. At the property’s flagship bar, an opulent room doused in red velvet and glistening brass, they lured some of the biggest names in the bar world to a series of guest bartending events dubbed the Connoisseur’s Club. Dale DeGroff (the industry’s unofficial Godfather), Audrey Saunders (NY's Pegu Club) and Sasha Petraske (NY and London's Milk & Honey) were just a few luminaries who came across the pond and their participation helped bring international attention to the unlikely, isolated bar. In 2009, the Merchant Hotel won World’s Best Hotel Bar, World’s Best Drinks Selection and World’s Best Cocktail Menu at the annual Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards (like The Oscars of the drinks world), held every year in New Orleans.
The Rabbit releases only one annual menu and their previous efforts are two of the most highly coveted of any bar in the world.
The Rabbit too has a closet of trophies, with a total of five Tales awards since its 2012 debut. The bar releases only one annual menu, and their previous efforts are two of the most highly coveted of any bar in the world. And today, three years since The Rabbit's launch, the bar rolls out its third cocktail list. A meticulous 66-page bible of original drinks that was curated over the course of the last year, illustrated with a spectacular animated story line that follows the life Father Lewis Pease.
Pease, their muse, was a determined Methodist clergyman and temperance reformer who, in 1850, established the Five Points Mission, which provided religious teachings and work for the area’s mostly working class Irish Catholics. Menu development started back in early October when Muldoon won out with his proposal for the overall concept and many of the political and sometimes religious sounding cocktail names.
In the lead up to the opening of the Dead Rabbit — named after the notorious street gang of the 1850s led by boxer John Morrissey — McGarry spent a staggering two years working on the bar's cocktail menu, searching for original recipes while aiming for what he calls "unquestionable historical accuracy" in each drink. No piece of minutiae was considered too small on a menu that would top out at 72 drinks, an ambitious number by today’s standards.
In the lead up to the opening of the Dead Rabbit ... McGarry spent a staggering two years working on the bar's cocktail menu...
That first menu based itself around drink categories, some of them resurrected from near extinction such as Bishops, Possets and Daisies, sitting alongside more recognizable names like Fizzes, Smashes, Cobblers and Juleps. He called on the help of Drinksology, a creative firm based in Belfast, to help bring the menu to life. Opening night took place February 12, 2012, a birthday they now share forever with John Morrissey.
The second menu, released a year to the day later, and one that went on to take the title of world’s best cocktail menu for the second time in their careers, took a more graphic, animated approach. Sections were named after the many personalities of John Morrissey: Fiery, Strong, Bitter and Cultivated, among others. Irish whiskey was a much greater focus this time, accounting for 33 of the 64 drinks, something that McGarry says, "is now forever part of the DNA of the Dead Rabbit." It is the versatility of the spirit that he continues to preach, revealing, "Who would have thought that Irish whiskey would pair with so well with aquavit and celery bitters?"
Their devotion and evangelical approach to their national spirit also seems fitting as they put the finishing touches on the first ever Irish whiskey academy in America, also opening today on The Rabbit's third floor in a room that was typically used for events and spill over on busier nights. Their goal is to become ground zero for spreading the gospel of pot still Irish whiskey, whether through a series of highly curated whiskey classes for media, professionals and home enthusiasts; through each of their cocktail menus; or through their whiskey collection, the most comprehensive in America, topping out at 146 at last count and growing.
Third Time's a Charm
This time around, in the lead up to the launch of their third menu, McGarry has asked for a lot more input from his staff. Most notably, he now has a creative tour de force by his side in Jillian Vose, who came over from several years at Death & Company to be his head bartender.
McGarry and Vose researched Pease's story in depth, and settled on using the four seasons of the year to create a "a year in the life of" diary, juxtaposing day (lighter bodied drinks) and night (heavier, stronger drinks). Again, the menu tops out at 64 drinks, with eight shaken and eight stirred under each section or season. Vose has been the driving force behind this upcoming menu, though she admits that about 25 percent of the drinks are from the other bartenders, McGarry included.
"I want the development of our menus to be democratic," McGarry told me. "We give our staff a framework to work around but it’s important for the growth of the business and ourselves that we harness people’s strengths, give them goals and to feel part of the creative process. That way, we all learn from each other and in the end the result is much stronger."
What to Drink
Launching in the throes of winter, drinks on the menu will include the Little Water, an elegant combination of absinthe, pear brandy, white vermouth and Old Tom gin infused with an obscure type of mint called Pennyroyal. The Death Knell, with Japanese whiskey, oloroso sherry and togarashi "needed more depth," according to McGarry. Vose found her solution, after several attempts, with the artichoke-based amaro, Cynar.
Planning for the Spring and Summer sections proved more difficult during winter months. Rather than sourcing out of season produce, McGarry explains, "We’re looking for ingredients that can be interpreted in many different ways and use flavors that can sometimes transcend the seasons." As found in the White Rabbit, a boldly textured, unlikely mix of gin, cream sherry, orange sherbet, tarragon and fresh parsnip juice. Vose’s Pyscho Killer was the best drink I tried all day at a recent staff training, and indeed one of the best I might have ever tried, period. It brings together a preposterous marriage of Redbreast Irish whiskey, Campari, banana and cocoa nib.
Irish whiskey is, again, a major focus for this menu, accounting for just over half of the drinks. Patrons can expect to find several smaller, more esoteric Irish whiskey brands that are not often seen around the city.
In a break from tradition, they're also adding their first ever vodka-based cocktail. Noticing a move towards lighter, healthier drinks, the Roman Empire is a savory marriage of Absolut Elyx vodka with aquavit, apple, dill and citrus. McGarry sees this as a transition away from what he calls "ego-driven" menus that take into consideration what customers are actually drinking and not what the mixologist wants them to drink. The new menu, in fact, will be dotted with more white spirits than ever, including blanco tequila, pisco, genever, clear rum and gin.
"With a menu this large, we’re trying to find a balance and not repeat the same ingredients too many times," adds Vose. "Hopefully we can find a drink to suit anybody’s palate or preferences, but the menu has been designed in a way that should be easy for customers to navigate. The last thing we want to do is confuse or intimidate anyone. We also do an obscene amount of training with our staff so they can articulate the format to our guests in about 30 seconds. Even if a drink makes sense or not on paper, it still needs to taste good, right?"
If negotiating your way through 64 cocktails sounds laborious or intimidating, then perhaps turn to an insert of about a dozen drinks that sits in and protrudes from the top of the hard copy book menu. It is here that The Rabbit is able to add drinks that are hyper seasonal, using fresh produce that might only rear its head in the city for a fleeting moment, such as kumquats, blood oranges, Meyer lemons, watermelon, white cherries and more.
What's to Come
Unlike the first two menus, this time The Rabbit is moving away from what they call a "historical approach." Even though highly respected drinks historians David Wondrich and Christine Sismondo both contributed their prose for the menu. The former outlined the best bars in the area circa 1850s and the latter provided an overview of the period's nightlife.
... this will be the last highly conceptualized menu with a story line that we do.
Each of The Rabbit’s menus tell a story (typically written by a famous drinks scribe), but with the amount of time it takes to create something this meticulous and exhausting, McGarry says that "this will be the last highly conceptualized menu with a story line that we do. Our future menus will be smaller and while they might be a step away from what people have come to expect from us, they still need to be balanced, clever and relevant."
Most of the top craft cocktail bars typically change up their menu either twice a year (pre-Spring and pre-Fall) or with every season, if they’re a little more ambitious. But, The Rabbit's single yearly release gives their team additional and ample time to prepare for what might be another award-winning compendium. With nine Tales awards now in their trophy cabinet, McGarry’s once relentless desire for awards is waning. "I’ve always been a goal oriented, driven and relentless person, which early on meant winning awards. That’s not my goal anymore. My aim now is to create the best crew possible who are energetic and engaged, and to ensure we are constantly growing, trying to be better and targeting areas of unfinished business while identifying areas of improvement. My fundamental belief is that a happy, involved and informed staff will constantly push the boundaries with our philosophy."
In accordance with the rules of the Tales of the Cocktail Awards no one can win the same award in consecutive years, which makes The Rabbit eligible again this year. The award for best cocktail menu last year went to The Aviary in Chicago, then under the watchful eye of James Beard winning bartender Charles Joly. And no one can win the same award more than twice, so this might be the last time they stand on the podium. At least for this award.