‘To get world’s best bar in Belfast is one thing, but in New York is another’

Wild Geese: Dead Rabbit owner Sean Muldoon on his career journey

Dead Rabbit owner Sean Muldoon: ‘Between dreaming of the bar, and breathing life into it, it took six years of hard graft.’

Dead Rabbit owner Sean Muldoon: ‘Between dreaming of the bar, and breathing life into it, it took six years of hard graft.’

 

After watching a documentary about an Italian furniture-maker one evening in the late 1990s, Sean Muldoon had a career epiphany.

“I was blown away by the self-belief this man had. He wanted to be the best furniture-maker in the world and he just went out to do it.”

It emboldened him to aspire to becoming the best barman in the world. After much determination and grind, his hard work paid off and he went on to win the world’s most prestigious bartending accolades on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born in Belfast in 1971 during the Troubles, Muldoon’s career success seemed a million miles away. “School was like a prison and I couldn’t wait to get out. I wasn’t academic at that time so, after leaving school, I started bartending as a means to travel and save money to make a CD.”

Though he had no musical qualifications, Muldoon made the CD, which took him six years and cost €12,000. “It gave me great confidence to be single-minded and see something through to the end but, once it was done. I wasn’t sure how to sell it or get it played on air.”

Until musical success came, he decided to continue working in bars. On New Year’s Eve 1996, the bar at which he was working in Belfast was the target for a revenge attack: one person died, others were injured. “They called the bar The Sitting Duck, such was the inevitably of an attack at any point. After it happened, I was terrified to be there on my own, without security.”

In an effort to save himself and his sanity, he quit the job and decided to take hospitality courses to improve his skills. “Subsequently I was offered a job at Madisons in Belfast, which was as fancy a bar as I had ever seen.”

The job saw him working in one of Belfast’s most sophisticated cocktail bars, where he began to make shakes. “I met people in the industry, travelled to London to learn from the best and eventually, after leaving in 2002, started off on my own.”

With The Perfect Drinks Company, he trained staff, put together cocktail menus and travelled around Ireland with a mobile bar. Soon his cocktail menus in bars he worked with won awards and he made a name for himself. But his trajectory was stifled by self-confidence issues after a public speaking mishap, so he went to work on a six-star cruise ship sailing around the Caribbean and South America, before coming back to work at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast.

Fulfilling aspirations

The Merchant was where Muldoon would fulfil his bartending aspirations alongside Jack McGarry, his partner at the Dead Rabbit. After creating their Original Mai Tai, one of the world’s most expensive drinks, and which was made from the 1944 rum used in the first mai tai, and winning numerous awards there, including a designation as the world’s best cocktail bar in 2010, he and McGarry were offered investment from a client to make it in New York.

“Between dreaming of the bar, and breathing life into it, it took six years of hard graft. I went to New York in 2010 on my own and, from there, it took 2½ years to open the doors, more investors, logistics and much research.”

Named after an Irish American criminal street gang active in Lower Manhattan in the 1830s to 1850s, the Dead Rabbit is off the beaten drinking track in downtown New York, located as it is near Wall Street, which in itself was a hard sell.

“We wanted the Dead Rabbit to be like a two-in-one venue, with fancy cocktails from the 1900s in one room and an Irish pub in another. We are famous for our Irish coffees and our Guinness is our second most popular drink. We pride ourselves on it.”

After just three months, the awards came rolling in, including one for best new bar. In 2017, the Dead Rabbit was crowned the world’s best bar by Drinks International magazine, while also winning a title of best American bar four years in a row.

“It was a massive achievement. To get world’s best bar in Belfast is one thing, but in New York, where competition is so huge, is another.” The pub was on the pages of magazines and newsstands all around the world for its eclectic mix of cocktails, expansive Irish whiskey collection and detailed decor.

“The thing is, when you get the best bar in the world, people will come – and they did. But the bar was so packed, we had to expand to buy the building next door and expand into three rooms. I’m not a huge fan of the corporatisation of places, so it was a difficult decision.

“Bigger does not mean better, but it’s more polished now. The service is better, because it’s not as full,” he says of the venue, which also offers an ample menu.

Things were going well as Muldoon and McGarry opened another venture – BlackTail, a Cuban-themed bar, also in Lower Manhattan – while also penning two cocktail books. But, like for venues across the globe, Covid-19 hit hard.

“We were closed for 11 months in total, but we opened to full capacity two months ago, as 70 per cent of New Yorkers are now vaccinated. The city dropped mask mandates, allowed indoor dining and life to resume. There were even big street parties here.”

Delta threat

But, Muldoon says, the Delta variant is looming, so mask-wearing could be enforced again.

“Despite being open, things aren’t back to normal at the Dead Rabbit, because we rely heavily on tourists from Ireland and the UK, and the travel ban has meant they can’t come.”

As a result of the pandemic, the duo closed their Cuban bar on Pier A. But Muldoon says he used the time off to work on ideas to expand their business and study.

“I decided to study advanced photography online at Harvard University. Now I do all the media for the Dead Rabbit,” the entrepreneur says. “I’m planning on doing a degree in Harvard over the coming years in liberal arts, which I’m very excited about. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do.”

Muldoon says being focused on one thing and sticking with it has been his recipe for success. Not wanting to rest on his laurels, he and McGarry are planning to open a venue in New Orleans. But first, he is looking forward to a milestone birthday.

“I’m 50 this year, and hope to throw a big bash at the Dead Rabbit. I’ll get musicians to play my music from my CD. I guess it will be a celebration of coming full circle. If they lifted the travel ban to the US, so my friends could come, it would be the icing on the cake.”

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