The Irish Man Behind The Best Bar in The World – Seán Muldoon of The Dead Rabbit NYC
To be crowned ‘The Best Bar in the World’ once is outstanding, but to receive the title a second time is nothing short of remarkable. The Dead Rabbit in New York City must be doing something right.
I was very pleased to have the opportunity of speaking with Seán Muldoon, the co-founder and operating partner of The Dead Rabbit, to find out more about the bar, the second win and why he thinks The Dead Rabbit is so special.
Seán Muldoon’s dream was to combine sophisticated cocktail service with the very best of the Irish pub tradition and it is true to say that he has achieved just that. The Dead Rabbit oozes class with a very down to earth homely atmosphere. Having spoken with Sean at length, one cannot fail to see how passionate he is about his business and what he and his staff have achieved. He is humble, practical and very focused on giving the very best service to his customers. Sean has a very level headed approach to business.
Unlike many establishments in New York City, the Dead Rabbit is not a detriment to its own success. There is nothing fake or pretentious about the place and the warm friendly staff ensure that the customer has a wonderful experience.
The elevated “pub grub” menu offers a perfect blend of classic favourites with a creative twist. If you are in the mood for comforting food like bangers and mash or chicken pot pie, then look no further than this FiDi gem. The bar is full of quirky hidden touches like the bespoke graphic novel that awaits you at the bar, that contains 30 carefully crafted cocktails. This “one of a kind” menu also tells the story of The Dead Rabbits, the media bestowed name of the notorious Irish American gang which operated in New York City in the 1850s.
Each cocktail is based on and named after the events in the story, beginning with lighter fruitier concoctions and eventually making their way to more full bodied, boozier beverages as the story escalates; think Spark Plug, Gansta’s Paradise, Femme Fatale and Guilty as Sin. The only issue is trying to resist sampling everything on the menu. This bar must be one of my favourites in the city and offers a little taste of home each time I go, it is a very special place and certainly deserves the accolades that have been bestowed on it.
What initially brought you to NYC?
From 2006-2010 myself and my business partner Jack McGarry, both ran a very famous cocktail bar in the Merchant Hotel in Belfast. It was one of the most awarded cocktail bars in the world during our time there. It was the first ever bar outside NYC to be awarded the title of World’s Best Cocktail Bar. A regular customer who was a native of Galway but lived in New York, told us we had gone as far as we could in Belfast. He advised us to move to a big city such as London or New York and added that he would be interested in investing in us if we were to move to New York. He felt that if we were to do the same in New York as we did in Belfast, we would have more opportunities. So, with that in mind, we set out to create the World’s Best Cocktail Bar in New York City.
What was the inspiration behind The Dead Rabbit Concept?
The gentleman from Galway who offered to invest in us, gave us sound advice; we had to come up with an original concept, one with longevity and to remember that we had “only one chance to get it right”. I thought long and hard about it, the bar in Belfast was in a 5* Hotel, elegant and intimate, a special craft cocktail bar with table service, everything was pretty perfect! I also thought about a busy workings man’s Irish pub close by, The Duke of York, we liked to hang out there when we finished work.
Getting both these elements working together was how the concept of the Dead Rabbit developed. I knew that to do it right, it had to be believable, in other words, there had to be something linking the Cocktail bar to the pub. It had to make sense, there had to be a reason for it. I looked at New York history hoping to find a link, a period when the Irish in New York and the cocktail evolution morphed.
I knew that Jerry Thomas published the first ever cocktail book in New York in 1862. I also knew that the Great Famine occurred in Ireland from 1845 -1851 and that a million Irish people landed at the port of New York during that time, there was my first cocktail/Irish connection, I now had a time period of the mid-19th century. I then looked at districts in New York only to discover that the first cocktail movement happened in Lower Manhattan, a place where many of the first Irish immigrants settled. So now I had a time and a place- Lower Manhattan in 1850. I googled “Irish-New York names 1850 Lower Manhattan,” this threw up the words ” Lists of identities- Gangs of New York”, and the name of one of the gangs jumped out at me: The Dead Rabbits … the perfect name for a bar!
On further investigation, I discovered that this gang was featured in the film “Gangs of New York” I became fascinated with this gang and that era in the history of New York. We decided to name the bar The Dead Rabbits. The reason for choosing this name was because I wanted to create a working man’s pub and a high-end cocktail lounge in the same place – and for it all to make sense.
Have you always been interested in mixology and cocktail making??
I have been working in bars since 1992. In 1998 I decided to take it seriously, that’s when I got into cocktails.
What are your favourite bars in the world?
I like a few of the hotel bars in London, the American Bar at The Savoy Hotel and The Bar at The Connaught. Here in New York I like the bar at The Nomad Hotel and a bar in Williamsburg called Maison Premier. They are my favourite cocktail bars.
What do you recommend on the drink’s menu?
I think it’s a case of assessing the customers’ needs and serving them a drink that’s in line with what they are thinking. There are certain questions that you need to ask such as their spirit preference, if they would like the drink to be strong or refreshing. You can also ask what kind of drinks they normally have, then you can base your suggestion around that. In our menu of 30 drinks we start off with the lightest type of drinks and make our way through until we get to the heaviest type.
Are there any off the menu specialties that we should know about?
Every bar in the world that calls itself a cocktail bar should be capable of making most classic cocktails. The bar should keep a log of all drinks that have been on previous menus, so most classic cocktails and every drink that has ever been served previously should be available off-menu.
What has been your proudest moment as owner of “the best bar in the world”?
There have been many, many proud moments for me. Having our book “The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual” published ranks up there, also that book going on to receive the award for being the Best Cocktail/Bartending Book 2016. Obviously being voted World’s Best Bar in 2015 and then again in 2016 was a great moment.
What makes you stand out from other bars in NYC?
We always wanted to promote the bar primarily as an Irish pub with a cocktail bar attached. We did not want to promote it as a cocktail bar only. In my opinion cocktail bars are types of places that attract certain types of people. We believe by promoting it as a “pub” everyone would be likely to feel welcome, everyone from the business community to the local people and tourists to cocktail aficionados. Everyone is included, no one is excluded. We don’t have a dress code and we operate on a first come, first served basis.
What kind of crowd do you attract?
The bar attracts a mix match of personalities, people from the local business community to construction workers, tourists, particularly Irish, British and American, to the local residents and global cocktail aficionados. All we ask is that customers behave and do not get drunk or unruly.
What businesses have you owned/worked at/managed before opening The Dead Rabbit?
As I said already, I’ve been working in bars full time for the last 24 years. It’s really all I know. I’ve traveled the world in search of inspiration and have visited bars in every corner of the globe. Before Dead Rabbit, I ran the world-famous Cocktail Bar at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast for 5 years. Before that I was working in London and before that I was working on a 6* cruise ship.
What do you think makes the Dead Rabbit the best bar in the world?
It’s the attention to detail. The staff and the hospitality. The ambiance. The fun. The music. The crowd. The branding. The menus. The drinks. The food.
It’s not one thing alone but a combination of all the above that makes the Dead Rabbit so special. It is unassuming and in no way, pretentious. It is sincere, honest and humble.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think is important and you may want to share with the TheTaste readers?
Being the best in the world is a mindset. It never stops. I tell everybody that in order to be ” the best in the world” you need to want to be the best in the world every single waking day. We are always looking at ways to improve and stay relevant; be it simple adjustments such as changing the style of glassware, changing the format of our menus, changing the music playlists, or changing some of the decor items – and we are never content with what we’ve got.
I remember reading in some British tabloid many, many years ago about the then Aussie pop sensation, Peter Andre. Andre was asked about his gym routine and asked also about whether he had ever taken steroids, people did think he was using them. Andre replied “watch me in the gym every day, watch the effort I put into looking the way I do, then tell me I take steroids”.
It’s a bit like that with The World’s Best Bar title, people tell us: “It’s amazing what you have accomplished in such a short time! You should be happy!” and we say to them: ” understand what we have been through; understand what we go through every single day; then tell us it’s been such a short time.”
We are never happy, we can’t allow ourselves to be happy- for the day we think we have made it is the day for us to give up.
I moved to New York in November 2015 on a graduate visa after studying communication studies in DCU. I am currently working in a Food PR company in Soho where I can incorporate my love of all things food related and my career. I like to spend my free time wining and dining with friends, cooking or reading cookbooks/blogs and I am forever on the hunt for new places to try. I will be continuing to eat my way around New York City over the coming months and I’m sure that the proof of my foodie escapades will be shared on my Instagram.