Drink in the sights

A menu is a statement of intent, says Sean Muldoon. The Dead Rabbit and Blacktail co-owner tells us how important menus have been to his bars


THE FIRST MENU I ever saw that blew my mind was the Paparazzi Bar cocktail menu (see right), given to me by Stanislav Vadrna in 2008. The year before at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast we had launched a series of events called the Connoisseurs Club, and Stanislav was one of the guest speakers. His seminar was on Japanese Bartending and he brought with him a copy of the menu he created for his bar in Slovakia, which had won the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for World’s Best Cocktail Menu in 2007. Vadrna had an interest in photography, and the front and inside cover of his menu were all about light and shadow, and how the eye can play tricks on you. When he gave it to me I couldn’t believe it. It was easily the most interesting menu I had ever seen. Vadrna was also the reason we spent months trying to create crystal clear ice at the Merchant Hotel. He inspired a whole generation of Slovakian bartenders, popularised Japanese bartending techniques in the western world and instilled in me a fascination with menus.

A year after Vadrna’s visit, the Merchant Hotel won the awards for World’s Best Cocktail Menu, World’s Best Hotel Bar and World’s Best Spirits Selection. In 2010 we won World’s Best Cocktail Bar and, with the exception of Drink – Boston, it is still the only bar outside of New York and London ever to do that. That was unheard of at the time and, to be honest, it still is.

Our achievements at theMerchant Hotel afforded us the opportunity to move to America, and The Dead Rabbit was born. We knew that our opening menu had to be special, so we started with an illustrated book. For the drinks Jack [McGarry] was inspired by his short stint working in London with Nick Strangeway and Henry Besant at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and he created a menu of mostly forgotten drinks from the 19th century (no drinks that were featured on that menu were created after 1900). The cocktails were actually more daring than the layout and the bigness of the menu itself. No one had made drinks like that in New York for more than 100 years. That first hardbound menu won the award for World’s Best Cocktail Menu in 2013, as did the third menu in the three-part series, in 2015. To date, no other team in the world has won that award twice, let alone three times.

The idea for Dead Rabbit’s comic book menu came to us in London in 2015. Our designers took some convincing, but we knew the bar had evolved and we wanted something to reflect that. We’re more rebellious now than when we first opened and are dedicated to bringing the Irish pub into the 21st century. The Dead Rabbit is a bar with a punk attitude; it’s ruthless and tough and progressive, so I said “fuck it, let’s just change”. It was all about keeping the guests excited, and about us continuing to be progressive and not normal or run of the mill. And it wasn’t just the menus we decided to change either, as we gradually started changing things around in the bar too. We swapped out the old paintings for contemporary photos, we relaunched the website, and we changed the music, making it much more upbeat and lively. It’s important that we keep growing and always stay one step ahead.