Alive and kicking

New York’s Dead Rabbit has been named the world’s best bar. Hamish Smith catches up with co-owner Jack Mcgarry to see what’s next for the winning team


AS THE CLOCK struck 9pm at Christ Church in London’s Spitalfields on October 6, the boisterous throng at The World’s 50 Best Bars ceremony fell silent. Members of the Dead Rabbit bar team were among them – ears and eyes fixed on the stage, waiting on the last two names to be called out. They had been here before, at the edge of greatness – twice in the past two years the New York Irish Bar had been named runner-up, twice it had lost to Artesian.

This year, Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry’s Dead Rabbit was many people’s favourites to win – but with the rejuvenated American Bar at the Savoy also in the final two, the winner was far from a foregone conclusion. For two ambitious Irishmen, a third second-place finish would have been hard to take. In the end it was a case of third time lucky – except there was nothing lucky about how they reached the top of the bar business.

While Muldoon took to the stage with that look of a relieved competitor who had finally done what he had set out to achieve, McGarry was back at Dead Rabbit – one of the 14,000 to watch the show by live stream. He may not have been there to share the moment with his long-time business partner, but it seemed equally pertinent that he could host a party at the newly crowned World’s Best Bar.

We caught up with him the day after the night before to pose a few questions.

HS: You’ve always said you wanted to create the world’s best bar – when was this ambition formed and what drives it?

JM: Sean has an ever-burning desire to be the best in the world. My burning desire is to be the best version of myself and push others around me to the same. Our styles complement each other well. We both come from a tough part of Belfast where opportunities are limited. The option was to stay and do something menial or dare to dream and take the world on. We choose the latter.

We’ve been operating like this since our Merchant Hotel days in Belfast. Everything we did we wanted to do to the best of our ability. At the Merchant, it was all about challenging the big boys from New York and London. People said a bar in Belfast would never make it. That gave us the fuel to make sure that wasn’t the case.

Once we achieved that [the Merchant featured on the World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2011 and won Tales’ Spirited Awards World’s Best Cocktail Bar in 2010] the opportunity presented itself to go to New York and take the fight directly to the doorsteps of the big bars. The Dead Rabbit was all about challenging the misconception that an Irish Bar couldn’t be the best bar in the world. It’s a theme that has been done to death and consequently it’s been cheapened and pigeonholed. We wanted to bring the Irish bar into the 21st century.

That’s the why. The goal that kept us focused was winning 50 Best. When we had our down days – not being able to pay rent, being homesick and not having family around, having to buy second-hand clothes, having to walk or run because you couldn’t afford public transportation, working in bars that didn’t suit our philosophy and not being sure if we would have a location – the thing that we went back to was each other and that we were here to do something important and open the world’s best bar. I’m so emotional that we’ve achieved it. I’m delighted for our team as well.

HS: Now you have achieved your aim, will maintaining greatness be a harder motivation?

JM: Yes, absolutely. We are making sure we keep our discipline on delivering our world-class product while constantly identifying opportunities to stimulate growth and improvement. We will not rest on our laurels. Every arrival point represents our next destination point. We will be working even harder to do this award proud and give our guests the best possible bar experience.

HS: What would you like to achieve next in the industry?

JM: The future is to keep the Dead Rabbit fresh and edgy. We’ve hired a talented digital marketing manager from Belfast to revamp our website and manage all social media platforms. Rebekkah Dooley has also come on board as events, marketing & PR manager and we’re expecting a lot of creativity from her to stimulate growth in particular areas. On top of that, we’re working on our new menu as we speak with our wonderfully talented design partners, Drinksology. To complement that Jillian Vose and team will be revamping our programme for the next menu. We’re improving a lot of decor pieces such as murals, and the toilets etc. We’re fully focused on being the best that we can be.

As operators, we could easily rest up now and milk the cow, but we put our money (and it’s our actual money) where our mouths are. We spend a fortune on entertainment, branding and development that other bars simply don’t do. It’s so important for us and this will only intensify after this award. The Dead Rabbit is a $7m business but the overheads are huge. However, we don’t operate run-of-the-mill businesses.

On top of that, we’ve recently opened Black Tail and will be continuing to work on improving that ship. It’s started really well but we’ve a lot of growing and improving to do. We’ll be opening our events space at Black Tail early next year and a month or two after that we will be opening the courtyard outside of Black Tail. This will represent a $600k-$750k investment. We want to get Black Tail to where Dead Rabbit is experientially and operationally. That’s the goal there.

Outside of the two venues, we’re also proactively looking for another site to open our next bar. We will have more news on that as we have it. We’re also working on an Irish whiskey/Irish pub book and will be working on this next year at some point.

We’re not resting on our laurels. We’ve got great teams, great training infrastructures and great partners to continue building our company. The future is very exciting.