Putting the Irish in Irish coffee

Two Belfast barmen are trying to nudge scotch and bourbon off the palates of New York whiskey drinkers

Sat, Feb 15, 2014, 01:00

Jack McGarry of the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in New York’s financial district claims to serve the world’s best Irish coffee. Hmmm, you might think, but McGarry’s credentials match his mouth. The 24-year-old bartender was voted International Bartender of the Year at the Tales of a Cocktail competition in New Orleans in July. Open only a few months, The Dead Rabbit romped home with the World’s Best New Cocktail Bar and World’s Best Cocktail Menu awards.

Named after the infamous 19th century Irish-American gang, the Dead Rabbits, the bar has a small facade on Water Street in downtown Manhattan. Back in the 1840s, millions of Irish famine exiles would have docked close by, just off the coffin ships. Harking back to the old world, the downstairs taproom is littered with sawdust, but under the sea of shoes this nod to yesteryear is barely visible.

The upstairs parlour cocktail lounge is quieter, the dim lighting leaving a clean sheen on the mahogany bar. In both bars, most of the liquid sloshing around the glasses is a murky brown colour. Serving more than 70 Irish whiskies, the Dead Rabbit represents the best of Irish whiskey culture in New York.

The craft cocktail renaissance has helped to raise the profile of darker “classic cocktail spirits” such as bourbon and scotch in the United States, and over the past 10 years Irish whiskey has enjoyed a steady revival. But despite its surge in popularity, uisce beatha still struggles to compete for the seasoned palettes of Scotch-swilling spirit connoisseurs.

In general, bartenders snub Irish variations, claiming they were not used in pre-prohibition recipes. Not the case if you ask McGarry.

“Bourbon didn’t become a popular whiskey until the 19th century,” he points out. “Irish whiskey was the biggest imported whiskey into America at that time. A lot of times when you see these classic recipes it just says whiskey. It was very likely to have been an Irish that was being used.”

McGarry and his business partner Sean Muldoon, both Belfast natives, are seeking to challenge the status quo with their new menu, which takes the number of Irish whiskey cocktails in the upstairs parlour from 14 to 40 out of the 72 drinks served.

“A lot of people see [Irish whiskey] as being slammed as a shot,” says McGarry. “Obviously Jameson shots are always going to be massive in America and we’re not trying to challenge that, we just want people to appreciate Irish whiskey in general.”

Having gained financial backing, McGarry and Muldoon moved to New York more than two-and-a-half years ago to realise the concept for the Dead Rabbit. McGarry had just finished a stint at London’s Milk and Honey, one of the world’s most awarded bars. Before Milk and Honey, McGarry worked with Muldoon in the Merchant Hotel bar in Belfast, which won the World’s Best Cocktail Bar award at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail competition.

With a slew of award-winning bars under their belts, the pair seems to have the Midas touch in the cocktail world. And since it opened last February, The Dead Rabbit has enjoyed quick and quiet success. So what spurred the new menu?

Irish coffee, of course.

“We were in a bar in Brooklyn, and the bar we were in had all these fancy bourbons, ryes and scotches,” says McGarry. “We asked the guy, ‘Where is your Irish whiskey?’ and he said he didn’t have any. ‘What if someone orders an Irish coffee, what do you use?’ I asked. He said: ‘Bourbon’. That was the eureka moment when we knew we had to address it.”

Putting anything but Irish whiskey in an Irish coffee is a cardinal sin to any Irish bartender. Given their heritage, the undertaking could be seen as a patriotic – albeit slightly overzealous – labour of love. But McGarry is business-oriented.

He says there aren’t too many whiskeys that can do both boozy and fruity drinks really well.

“Irish can wear many different jumpers and our menu is trying to show that versatility, by working with bananas and lychees, as well as amaros and liqueurs. You can work with it in any different way, and it will still show its character.”

The new cocktail menu at The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog aims to propel Irish whiskey into the spotlight and nudge scotch and bourbon off the palates of New York’s whiskey aficionados.

If anyone has the ability to sway the masses, McGarry and Muldoon will offer their best attempt.

And what about the Dead Rabbit’s meticulously prepared Irish coffee? Is it, as they say, the best Irish coffee in the world?

Cold, heavy cream perched on top of piping-hot Powers whiskey and an aromatic coffee brew. Jack McGarry wasn’t kidding. It was perfect.


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