Lower Manhattan’s New Cocktail Bar Nods to Gritty Gangs and Specialty Pours
One moment, Sean Muldoon was creating cocktails at a hotel in Northern Ireland, the next, he was standing over an unmarked grave in Greenwood Cemetery toasting one of bartending’s forefathers, and the moment after that, he found himself opening up Lower Manhattan’s newest cocktail bar.
It seems a bit of a whirlwind now, but the story of how The Dead Rabbit came to be is as New York as it gets—a couple of immigrants came with a dream and fought long and hard for it.
Water Street’s new hot spot is high-concept-meets-rough-Irish-roots, and speaks of a day in the mid-19th Century when gangs (including its namesake) roamed New York City streets and stole everything from pocket-watches to elections. The bar also earned a prestigious nod recently when New York Magazine named it “Best Everyman Bar” in its “Best Of” series.
Before the Rabbit’s bartenders started pouring libations with ingredients most New Yorkers have never heard of, Muldoon and his partner Jack McGarry needed a ticket to America . They were a Sloe Gin Fizz missing its fresh-squeezed lemon. Enter the “regular customer.”
The pair had been working together at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, and had earned it a heap of awards for their innovative drinks, Muldoon remembered as he sat in the Rabbit’s upstairs lounge. He was managing the hotel bar when a customer with connections to Wall Street became something of a familiar face.
The customer requested a special drink, something he couldn’t get anywhere else, and he was treated to a “Mr. Harrison,” a refreshing concoction Muldoon had created that was half Mai Tai and half Mojito. The drink impressed, and over time, the same customer became one of Muldoon’s biggest fans.
“He saw something in us,” Muldoon said. “He couldn’t believe we were in Belfast and had a global reputation.” So he offered to invest in the duo.
A little more time passed and Muldoon found himself on a cocktail pilgrimage to New York. Like the journeys of the faithful to the tombs of the saints, bartenders visit the old haunts of their mixology forefathers, and drink their signature drinks.
This particular pilgrimage was dedicated to legendary barman Harry “The Dean” Johnson. Muldoon stood over Harry’s grave at Greenwood and then remembered something—the “regular customer” should be coming back soon to New York. He sends him a text. In fact, the customer’s having a drink over at Harry’s Café and Steak. He invites Muldoon over, brokers an introduction with the owners, and next thing Muldoon knows, he’s working at Harry’s. In a fitting twist, it turns out Mr. Johnson used to pour drinks at the very spot where Harry’s now sits.
Muldoon spent the next couple years making connections and hammering out his plan for a unique cocktail establishment. He envisioned a place that would pay homage to Manhattan’s Irish roots, the specialty cocktail of yore and yet appeal to a modern taste and sensibility. It also had to work with the building in which they wanted to base the Rabbit, 30 Water Street. The 18th century building had the history he wanted and it was situated on a stretch of Water that he loved.
He had looked at several different neighborhoods, including the Flatiron and Chinatown, before setting his sights on Lower Manhattan. “There was an entire bartender movement down here between Broadway and City Hall,” he said. “I knew it had an Irish connection and a cocktail connection.”
He fell in love with the area and the real estate, and McGarry, who had also come to New York, did too. They used to gaze at the building at night, imagining it full of their patrons, a ragtime piano player at the bar.
“There were some dark days, but we couldn’t allow ourselves to believe it couldn’t happen in this building,” he said.
The Dead Rabbit offers 72 drinks—of which only 18 are pre-made—including punches, flips, possets, fizzes, smashes, toddies and absinthe concoctions. McGarry curated the selection from recipes more than 100 years old and updated them to fit the modern palate.
References to John Morrissey, the leader of the Dead Rabbits and a legendary figure in New York politics, can be found everywhere from the photos on the walls to the menu (which includes a special history lesson from Peter Quinn, a novelist and New York City chronicler.)
“You can’t do this anywhere else,” Muldoon said. “(The Dead Rabbit) belongs to New York.”
30 Water Street