New York's most influential bartender: an interview with Jack McGarry
For Jack McGarry, life in New York is going pretty well. The Northern Irish-born bartender opened Financial District cocktail bar The Dead Rabbit in early 2013, alongside business partner Sean Muldoon. Not even six months later, it was awarded the World’s Best New Cocktail Bar and World’s Best Cocktail Menu at Tales of the Cocktail (considered the Oscars of the cocktail world). And McGarry? He was also anointed International Bartender of the Year.
But since then McGarry hasn’t rested on his laurels. Following that success, he’s dived into a number of new projects, from partnering with high-powered restaurateur Danny Meyer to open GreenRiver in Chicago to the recently unveiled BlackTail, his long-awaited New York second-act with a Cuban-inspired cocktail list. We chatted with McGarry to find out more about what it’s like to run a world-class bar, what comes after being named the World’s Best — and which New York haunts you shouldn’t miss on your next trip.
Tell us about how The Dead Rabbit first came about. How did you and Sean settle on your theme?
‘We wanted to bring together our favourite two styles of bars: pubs and world-class cocktail bars (who said they had to be mutually exclusive?).
Before moving to New York, Sean and I were at The Cocktail Bar at The Merchant in Belfast, which won World’s Best Cocktail Bar in 2010 at Tales of the Cocktail. We had a regular there, Conor Allen, who said we should come to New York and start making cocktails in the best arena in the world. He said he would take care of the money, visas and everything else. It sounded too good to be true, but it wasn’t — his only requirement was that we had to build a bar with longevity.
Sean began working on a concept that would bring our passions together in a way that made sense to New Yorkers. We knew that a million Irish immigrants arrived in New York during the mid-19th century, and also that [legendary bartender] Professor Jerry Thomas had published a cocktail book there in 1862. So, we looked closer, and discovered that the two worlds — of immigrant-filled taverns and the sporting man’s cocktail lounges — indeed co-existed in Lower Manhattan in the mid-19th century.’
When you first opened The Dead Rabbit, your menu was based on historic drinks. Why did you decide to focus on 19th-century recipes?
‘I was always intrigued by the birth of bartending and mixed drinks. I felt that many bars had focused on speakeasy-style drinks, tiki drinks, etc, but no one had ever gone back to the real start of cocktail making. Beginning with the great work of spirits writer Dave Wondrich and his books, Imbibe! and Punch, we started work on our historic approach. Our original menu told the story of mixed drinks from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, starting with communal punches and going forward from there.’
Since opening, The Dead Rabbit has quickly distinguished itself as one of New York’s top destination bars. Did you anticipate that level of interest and acclaim prior to opening?
‘Yes — we knew we had something magical, something unique. We had the time to build everything the right way. We trained our crew for three months before we opened. We used our apartment as our HQ for over a year, testing drinks, creating playlists, food menus, getting our decor sorted, and interviewing staff. I don’t mean to come across as arrogant — it’s just that we knew how to run great bars, to train people accordingly and, most importantly of all, to hire the right people.’
How would you describe The Dead Rabbit’s overall place in the New York cocktail bar ecosystem? Is it fair to call it an Irish bar?
‘I would 100% call The Dead Rabbit an Irish bar — it’s an Irish Bar with a New York (and an Irish) soul. For me, its identity comes from hospitality, as a bar that’s devoid of pretension. A lot of bars make guests feel like they should be happy to be in the presence of great bartenders — or they go the other direction and act super cool, pour shots, act like they’re focused on serving you when really it’s all about them. At The Dead Rabbit, we have amazing bartenders, amazing liquor, amazing décor, but that counts for nothing if we lose sight of our goal of providing a comfortable hospitality experience for the guest. I think that’s what gives us an edge.’
Which other New York bars are essentials for you – whether for cocktails, beer, or beyond?
‘I love pubs, I love accessible and hospitable people, I love people doing things differently in a well-thought out way, and I love being comfortable in a bar. Apart from The Dead Rabbit of course, my favourite bars are Maison Premiere in Williamsburg (a New Orleans absinthe and oyster house) and The NoMad Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, which challenges the status quo of what a high-end hotel bar can be.’
For would-be bartenders who are passionate about drinks and looking to get into the game, what’s your top advice, as someone who started out young and very driven?
‘The best piece of advice I could give someone is Steve Jobs’s quote: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. Always be thirsty for knowledge, regardless of how far advanced you are, always strive to bring something fresh to the table, and always remember to have fun and be respectful towards other people. It’s served me well so far.’
Written by Claire Bullen