If you’re into cocktails enough to travel to New Orleans in the ball-sweating heat of July for Tales of the Cocktail or even, say, to hit up the local cocktail fest in your own hometown – be it Portland, San Francisco or San Antonio – then you’ve probably heard of Sean Muldoon. In quaffing circles, he’s something of a legend, having designed every last detail of the bar at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast, which for the better part of the mid-aughties was considered by cocktailians to be the finest bar in the world.
Sadly, many of us never got to enjoy a drink in the bar at The Merchant Hotel in its heyday, it being rather off-the-beaten track for most Americans. And, even if you managed to get yourself over to Northern Ireland, chances are you didn’t partake in the bar’s infamous Mai Tai, which clocked in as the most expensive cocktail in the world at £750. Why the hefty price tag? It was the only bar in the world that made its Mai Tai with the original 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew rum used to invent the drink at Trader Vic’s in 1944. Luckily, many of us will now get to sample the fruits of Mr. Muldoon’s labor, as he has left his native Belfast and relocated to New York. Here he plans to open his “ideal bar.”
“I had been a bartender for some time when I decided to start taking it really, really seriously,” says Muldoon. “I’m not sure how far you can take something like bartending, but I want to take it as far as it will go.”
Where that is just might be a pub-slash-cocktail bar called The Dead Rabbit, expected to open later this year in Lower Manhattan. The idea is to have a lively, busy room that serves great drinks and food without pretension, plus a separate, quieter space where cocktails are the focus and patrons are treated to Muldoon’s special brand of meticulous, attentive service. His vision for the cocktail component of the experience is so specific that he intends for it to evoke, precisely, the years between 1848 and 1878. Drinks will include punches, bishops, flips, possets, nogs, cups, cobblers, sours, fixes, daisies, slings, toddies, fizzes, juleps and smashes.
“I thought, Americans love stories,” says Muldoon. “So, the story starts with the fact that 1845-1851 there was a mass wave of immigrants coming across from famine-torn Ireland. And they were settling in this area, near the South Street Seaport. The Golden Age of the cocktail also starts around that time in the same area. You had Jerry Thomas working here; you had the Astor House, with its famous bartender; you had Harry Johnson, who owned the bar [which is now Harry’s] and who worked at Delmonico’s.”
And what about the name? It also requires a brief history lesson: the Dead Rabbits were an Irish gang based in Lower Manhattan during the 1850s that you may recall were portrayed in Martin Scorcese’s film The Gangs of New York. Whether they really impaled rabbits as their calling card is unsure, but what is certain is the area’s reputation for being the most crime-ridden in the city at the time. And just think: while bunnies and gangsters, like the notorious Bill the Butcher, were being bludgeoned, the celebrity bartenders of the day were shaking and stirring their fanciest concoctions just blocks away. At The Dead Rabbit, you’ll get to raise a glass to the lowlifes, the lushes and the libationers of the era.