An evening at The Dead Rabbit
New York had the harshest cold snap in years when I visited the Dead Rabbit in February 2014. The whole Financial District felt like a ghost town that evening. We were banking the Dead Rabbit’s Parlour would be available. That’s their small cocktail lounge on the second floor of their 30 Water Street tavern. Not bloody likely. The place was packed, regardless of the punishing weather out there, or maybe because of it. We settled into the Taproom downstairs for the next hour and a half. Sipping our beers, seasonal cocktails and sharing tasty appetizers. I perused the Parlour’s brand new graphic novel of a menu, figuring out what I’d be ordering upstairs. A group of people finally came down, and my nervous glance at the doorman was met with a reassuring nod of approval. About time!
Away from the chaos below, the Parlour is unexpectedly relaxing. Walking into the small, dim-lit room, it made sense the doorman had politely reminded us as we made our way up to avoid loud conversations. Staff also prefer guests not stand. The room was quite tiny but instantly welcoming. In fact, there are only a enough tables to make sure it’s comfortable.
Its green lath walls crammed with frames and books and the long mahogany bar have a warming presence. We sat at the bar, watching the bartenders work, sipping our complimentary cup of punch. It’s a thing of beauty. They moved quickly, ambidextrous and confident, knowing precisely which bottle to grab among all the identical bottles of syrups arranged on the drip trays, and putting together 8 or 9-ingredient drinks without hesitation. Service was friendly.
The Dead Rabbit roster of awards is impressive. | A sample: Tales of the Cocktail
Yet, the atmosphere was as inviting and unpretentious as your neighbourhood Irish pub, minus the TV screens. And the drinks! Deadly, balanced, heavy on the booze and Instagram-ready (Pics or it didn’t happen). Best bar in the world? As far as I can say, it was one of my best cocktail bar experiences.
Doing it right
Most businesses are built from the ground up, but for the Dead Rabbit, co-founders Irishmen Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry spent the two years leading up to the grand opening making sure no small detail would get overlooked.
Of course, the pair had a good idea of what they were doing: Muldoon had become a celebrity in the bartending world during his 3-year stint as bar manager at Belfast’s Merchant Hotel, and McGarry, who had been his Muldoon’s right hand for two years, had been bartending since he was 15 (only in Ireland!).
They both left the Merchant as the hotel began to feel a bit too rigid and corporate, a fact the Dead Rabbit Drink Manual: Secret Recipes and Barroom Tales from Two Belfast Boys Who Conquered the Cocktail World is surprisingly transparent about. Incorporated their own consulting firm (humbly christened Best Bar in the World, with their partner Ben Schaffer).
They set to open an Irish pub/cocktail bar crossover, in Manhattan. For their new venture, the aim was clear: win the Best New Cocktail Bar at TOTC. Muldoon knew how to get there, and took the right steps, such as putting McGarry in charge of creating a big, year-long menu to increase his chances to win awards and gain the press’ attention, regardless of the obvious nightmarish logistics.
Dead Rabbit calls a 115-year-old building home. The interior was completely rebuilt to faithfully re-create the look and feel of a humble mid-19th century barroom. Its Irish whiskey collection was one of the biggest in the US on opening day. The 72-drink menu was divided into drink families almost no one had heard of in well over a century. The menu bound in a gorgeous illustrated book tailor-made by design studio Drinksology.
McGarry pushed the ingredient list way beyond anyone else before him, with recipes calling for countless house tinctures, cordials, sherbet (fresh citrus juice with sugar and oils from the zest), and rare spirits and liqueurs. Their house bitters was made by Adam Elmegirab. We won’t get into the ice program…
The Irish in New York
Some New Yorker’s didn’t take lightly that two Belfast boys could come over with such lofty goals. During my stay in New York, a respected bartender I talked to compared the Dead Rabbit to a Walt Disney theme park. Yet sometimes style and substance comes hand in hand. One can only applaud the Dead Rabbits dedication to both their craft and their strong branding. After all, The Dead Rabbit has absolutely no qualms about their desire to be the best. And to sell more swag; you can buy their menus, bitters and posters on their online store.
The Drinks Manual
The Drinks Manual, penned by Ben Schaffer, chronicles the 1st year of the Dead Rabbit in its entirety. Every cocktail of McGarry’s award-winning menu is present. Also included; two bakers’ dozens of extra drinks featured on both seasonal menus of the Taproom and the Parlour during the opening year.
The book opens with a lengthy introduction that documents Muldoon’s career and the ordeals of making the Dead Rabbit a reality. The recipes are listed in almost in the same order as they’re found on the first menu. The recipe section is adorned with superb full-page photos. Sadly without Mark Reihil‘s stylish illustrations. Each drink comes with a short blurb that explains the inspiration or the concept behind it. They even explain the evolution or failure of certain drinks (eg; Punch à la Romaine)
That is not to say that knowing how to make the drinks is all it takes to start mixing your friends Dead Rabbit drinks at home. This is one of the first cocktail books where I can’t make many of the drinks. Some because the ingredients are impossible to find. Still, the book is filled with great ideas:
Using sherbet outside of punches. Pistachio syrup as a substitute for orgeat. Examples of unusual flavor pairings.
The main intent is to document what has been achieved, rather than to speak to those who are looking to replicate the recipes. If anyone takes up making rhubarb root tincture to mix rounds of Whiskey Daisy à la Fouquet, I’m in!
Ideal Holiday gift?
- A great read for passionate bartenders or advanced hobbyists. The recipes are definitely too advanced for most casual mixers.
- Having a drink recipe book to cover only 1 year worth of drinks means there’s plenty of material left for more Drinks Manuals in the future.
Over the first years, The Dead Rabbit branched away from 19th century drinks. Contemporary cocktails took over the menu under the helm of Death & Co. alumna Jillian Vose. Vose penned the majority of the award-winning Third Edition (2015). Irish whiskey is the main focus, used in half the new cocktails. Drinks are more eclectic than ever. McGarry’s taken the role of empowering his team to come up with drinks of their own. He and Muldoon have also kept busy opening a new restaurant/bar. Green River
, in Chicago. This project brought together talent from Celeste and the Aviary, Danny Meyer and their company; Best Bar in the World Hospitality Consulting.
“The process of creating a Dead Rabbit Drinks Menu typically takes 6 months from beginning to end, built around concepts that we formulate with our Belfast partners, Drinksology.”
Try making an Automobile, a top-seller from their 2013 menu
Inspired by Tim Daly, Daly’s Bartenders’ Encyclopedia, 1903
½ oz Celery Cordial (recipe below)
1 oz Pernod Absinthe
Garnish: Lemon peel
Add all the ingredients, except the Piper Heidsieck, to a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir until chilled. Add the Piper Heidsieck to the glass and strain the mixture into an ice-filled wine glass. Twist the lemon peel over the glass to express the oils, then discard the peel.
8 oz celery
4 cups water
4 cups granulated sugar
• Cut the celery stalks into chunks and feed them into a juice extractor.
• In a small saucepan, combine the juice, water, and sugar over medium heat, but do not boil. Slowly stir to dissolve the sugar. When the syrup has thickened, remove from the heat. Strain through a chinois into bottles. The cordial will keep for 2 to 3 weeks in the fridge.