In an era where the prototypical “American dream” story seems less and less realistic, Sean Muldoon is somehow managing to live one. Born in Belfast during the violent years of The Troubles conflict, his young adult life saw him bouncing back-and-forth between odd jobs and the government dole. A stint in the French Foreign Legion inspired him to become a songwriter, which accidentally led to him becoming a full-time bartender.
Muldoon has turned that accidental job into his life’s art. Rising meteorically through the ranks, by 2006 Muldoon found himself the “bar and potation manager” at The Cocktail Bar at The Merchant Hotel. Improbably, The Merchant would win World’s Best Cocktail Bar at 2010’s Tales of the Cocktail, a category up to that point exclusively dominated by New York City bars. In 2012, Muldoon and his now-partner Jack McGarry decided to hop the pond to America to see if they too could make it in Manhattan. Their bar would be called The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog, a downtown spot lavishly blending artisan cocktails with a more relaxed, pub-like atmosphere. Yet again, in yet another city, Muldoon’s visionary joint won World’s Best Cocktail Bar, this time at the 2015 ceremony. It likewise was just ranked North America’s best bar, and the #2 bar in the entire world, by The 50 Best Bars.
What was the secret to his success?
“I think there’s a healthy competition taking place, but there are always people that cry out about them. And I’ll be brutally honest: they’re always the people that don’t win the awards.”
“Jim Meehan said a thing I’ve always remembered,” says Muldoon. “It’s great having all these grandiose ideas before you open your bar, but it’s important that once you open, you listen to what the bar tells you you need. ‘Listen to the building.'”
It’s that mantra that inspires much of Muldoon’s thinking, both about how to run a bar, and how to continue leading the way in the cocktail industry. To him it’s not about any massive strokes of genius or innovation—it’s simply about finding out what it is customers want. (Even if they want a weekly DJ at The Dead Rabbit, he seems to somewhat shamefully note.)
Not one to rest on his laurels—and perhaps listen to other buildings—Muldoon and McGarry opened GreenRiver in Chicago this past fall, a restaurant/bar partnership with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events (though he’s not afraid to comment on Meyer’s recent anti-tipping policies). Earlier this month saw the release of The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual, co-authored by Muldoon, McGarry, and Ben Schaffer.
Muldoon is a man who greatly believes in kindness and hospitality when it comes to the bar business, but that doesn’t mean he’s not afraid to shake things up a bit. The mere fact he named his bar after the brutal Irish gangs who once roamed New York in the 1850s tells you he probably has a bit of an edge that we were more than happy to help uncover. From crybabies at cocktail awards, to the demise of speakeasies, here Muldoon pulls back the curtain on the cocktail industry.
The following interview has been condensed and edited.
On whether cocktail industry awards matter.
“I think there’s a healthy competition taking place, but there are always people that cry out about them. And I’ll be brutally honest: they’re always the people that don’t win the awards. The people voicing their negative opinions on Facebook, they’re the people that don’t win! Our bar is really, really busy. There are a lot of customers that keep coming back. When you win awards you’re in newspapers. Our guests read these things and they want to come back. It motivates our staff too, has them believing in the place. It’s their home and they’ll follow you to the end of the world. Our investors too. Now if we need an improvement, there’s no questions asked. They’ll pay. So awards pay off fourfold. Owners, customers, staff, investors. That’s the thing I like about awards.”
“There are always people that cry about [the awards]…[and]they’re always the people that don’t win.” (Photo: Facebook/Tales of the Cocktail)
On Danny Meyer transitioning to a no-tipping policy.
“I don’t even want to think about it! I know we would never be able to do it in our bar. Our staff is very happy the way things are. I haven’t really looked into it though. Danny is a visionary, no doubt, and he obviously has done his research and has his heart in the right place. But I know it wouldn’t work for us.”
On female bartenders currently dominating the cocktail scene in New York.
“Eighty-five percent of the people that work at Dead Rabbit are female (including bar manager Jillian Vose). The front of the house, the servers and the bartenders, are all women. It just seems to work in this part of town. Most our employees have been women since we opened. Any man that we’ve had, apart from the one we have now, just hasn’t turned out to be good.”
“The NoMad is a great trendsetter for the future hotel bars in America.” (Photo: thenomadhotel.com)
On why American hotel bars suck compared to the ones in London.
“The American ones that have been around for generations, they’re stiff. They’re unionized. The bartenders are there because it’s paying their way. They don’t love the job. They don’t want to be exciting or innovative. London hotel bars are where it’s at though. They’re grand. Even in Paris, the service at hotel bars is stiff. But in London you got The Artesian, Connaught, The Savoy. I remember going to The Savoy on a Saturday night 15 years ago. I wanted to meet my idol (legendary bartender) Peter Dorelli. There was heavy rain and Peter actually greeted my wife and me when we walked in. But he said, “You can’t come in, you’re wearing denims.” That’s what he said: “Denims.” He apologized, but he wouldn’t let me in. The next day they were closed. So I never got to see my idol! That type of experience is just too stiff. It’s not fun. But London hotel bars today are fun and where it’s at. I’ll say The NoMad is a great trendsetter for future hotel bars in America. There’s definitely room for hotel bars like that.”
“We took a photo and the server came over and yelled at us that there was no flash photography. There’s no room for that type of thing any more.”
On why the world needs a new type of cocktail book.
“To be honest, the one thing I see when I pick up cocktail books these days is just a lot of recipes. I was one of those the guys who only read these books for recipes, and I didn’t care about anything else. We do a lot of presentations around the world, and a big part of all these presentations is telling the story of how the Dead Rabbit came to be. How two young guys from Belfast ended up in New York City. The chances of what happened to us are a million to one. A lot of young kids from [my] area leave school at 16 [as Muldoon did]. I’ll be honest…a lot of young kids take their own lives because they see no reason in continuing on. So we wanted people to know they can be a better person. To not give up. To believe in yourself. To have that one-track mindset to accomplish something in life. We want to inspire them. Which is something I’m not sure a cocktail book has ever done before.”
(Photo: Yelp/Dianne P.)
On whether America needs another speakeasy bar.
“Definitely not in this country any more. Maybe in some places that are way behind us. (London’s) Nightjar is hidden in a dark basement with jazz playing. It still goes down well. There’s a bar I’ve seen in my travels, Imperial (Craft) Cocktail Bar in Tel Aviv. That’s one to watch for the future. It’s a fantastic little concept. Bit like PDT. I alway loved PDT ’cause it was so fun. Death and Co. was more intense, a more serious bar. But the serious speakeasy is definitely on the way out. Guests just want to have a good night out nowadays. I remember being in a serious speakeasy a few years back with some friends. We took a photo and the server came over and yelled at us that there was no flash photography. There’s no room for that type of thing any more.”
“But he said, “You can’t come in, you’re wearing denims. That type of experience is just too stiff. It’s not fun.”
On the importance of expensive olives.
“The Merchant was always different from every other bar in town. We always sought out the best quality. The bowl of olives every customer got for free on the table was shipped in from London. They were the best olives I’ve ever had! We literally spent 20,000 pounds a year on these olives. That’s an entire year’s salary for a person! And we’re giving them away for free to customers. But that’s why we were The Merchant.”
On the inherent drunkenness in cocktail culture.
“It terrifies me. I actually don’t drink cocktails in our bar for that very reason. I’ve had my years of drinking cocktails. I’ve done that whole thing. But I would only drink a cocktail in a new bar nowadays. I would never drink them day to day. It does terrify me. The cocktails over here are strong. In Belfast cocktails are 1.5 ounces of alcohol. Hotel bars in London you might get three ounces of alcohol but it’s mostly fortified wine. So it’s soft. Nowhere near as boozy as the drinks over here. Here it’s two to three ounces of strong liquor. Brown liquor. It’s what Americans want. What our customers expect. If we cut down on the alcohol, they’d kill us. But our guys are always on the lookout and very rigid. We cut people off, but always in a nice way. The last thing we want is some incident. But it’s always a risk you take when you open a bar.”
On why Scotch is seen as “better” than Irish whiskey in America.
“It all happened for historic reasons. The story of prohibition. It was basically…Irish whiskey was big in America before Prohibition. Then during Prohibition bootleggers approached the Irish whiskey people and asked if they would be prepared to send it in illegally. They wouldn’t, but the Scotch people would. So during Prohibition Scotch exploded. And after Prohibition, Scotch was still around. That’s why it’s so big today. It’s not the taste, it’s the history.”
On why Guinness tastes better in certain places.
“I’ve thought about this a lot—what makes Guinness taste better in one place over another? Some people say it’s how it’s stored. The temperature. Or the shortness of the draught line. Some say it’s how many times the line has been used to pour Guinness. But it’s none of those things. Someone actually summed it up to me. He said it has to do with how you’re feeling at the time. Another friend told me he had a Guinness with his father right before he died. He’ll never forget that Guinness. It all of the sudden made perfect sense. It’s all time and place. Even at our bar, one night Guinness is better than the next night. How can that be? The exact same keg, same tap, same glass, but one night it’s better than the next night. But it’s all time and place.”