What Makes the Dead Rabbit the World’s Best Bar?
A ‘Scarlet Lady’ waits in the parlor of the second floor of a brownstone where Water Street meets Broad in Lower Manhattan.
The cocktail—raspberry sweet with a fiery kick—tingles your senses. That’ll be the champagne and Irish whiskey.
This sinful siren—along with edgily named counterparts like Vigilante, Fallen Angel, Psycho Killer, and Gold Digger—is one of the many libations that not only lure in hundreds of cocktail enthusiasts a week, but have also garnered The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog the prestigious entitlement of the World’s Best Bar.
The title—regarded as the industry’s highest accolade—was awarded at the Tales of the Cocktail’s 8th annual Spirited Awards (think of it as a booze-centric “Oscars”) on July 18.
While this is the ceremony’s first official “World’s Best Bar” title, the award for the “World’s Best Cocktail Bar” has gone to the well-established teams at The Artesian at the Langham in London (2014), Drink in Boston (2013), The Connaught Bar in London (2012), and New York’s Employees Only (2011).
“It’s absolutely magic for us personally and we try to give that to everyone that comes in,” the Employees Only crew told New York Insider after receiving the award in 2011. “To be recognized with an honor like this is unbelievable.”
The speakeasy bar and restaurant modeled after the Roaring Twenties has been a New York staple since the mid-aughts.
Hidden behind a nondescript door with a welcoming palm reader, the team has been cooking up clever spins on classic cocktails and showing the masses how to master mixology for almost a decade.
And their dedication keeps paying off. This year, they took home the awards for “Best American Bar Team” and “Best American High Volume Cocktail Bar.”
The Artesian, a glamorously upscale bar tucked inside the equally chic Langham Hotel, snagged another award for “Best International Cocktail Bar.” Their cocktails—titled “Seconds Before Awakening,” “Suspended in Time,” and “Dream Quest”—are a combination of artisanal classics and Surrealist inspiration.
And while getting nominated by industry peers and international connoisseurs is an honor in itself, getting past the 150 judges from around the world can be a very intimidating process.
“They definitely keep an eye on what your bar is doing, the noise that you’re making and everything you’re doing to progress and advance the bar,” The Dead Rabbit’s co-founder and operating partner Jack McGarry told The Daily Beast. “The drinks have to be cutting-edge. Your staff and bar have to be world-class. They scrutinize everything that’s going on in and outside of the bar.”
Having a rich history to soak up with those cocktails probably doesn’t hurt.
Opened in 2013, the tri-level pub-meets-cocktail-bar-meets-event-space is a time capsule of both Lower Manhattan and Irish heritage.
During the early to late 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants were flooding into Manhattan’s South Street Seaport and Ellis Island. At the same time the American cocktail scene was starting to explode.
“Basically, Sean [Muldoon, co-founder and managing partner] and I wanted to bring together our two favorite styles of bars,” McGarry said. “It was the bar that we once worked in—a cocktail bar called The Merchant Hotel—and the bar that we drank in—an Irish pub called the Duke of York. But in order to do that it had to be relevant to New York.”
Located in Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Merchant Hotel received its own recognition as the “World’s Best Cocktail Bar” in 2010.
The 19th-century brownstone in which The Dead Rabbit is situated was built in a location that united the debauchery-ridden taverns on Water Street—often filled with German, Italian, and Irish immigrants—with the elegance of Lower Broadway’s cocktail lounges and the celebrity bartenders they employed.
Jerry Thomas, who tended bar below Barnum’s American Museum just a few blocks away, was famous for pioneering the popularization of cocktails across the United States.
He wrote his first Bar-Tender’s Guide in 1862, and may have single-handedly proven the bartender’s worth as a creative profession. There’s no doubt that he crafted the “mixology” movement that still bleeds into today’s culture.
Simultaneously the “Dead Rabbits”—a gang of Irish-American immigrants known for thievery and thuggish behavior—were causing riots with citizens and other gangs throughout the city.
One of its leaders, John Morrissey, was a hard ass who once frequented the Water Street pubs, according to McGarry, and eventually befriended Thomas as he rose to cocktail fame.
“He really brought together that story of the pub set on Water Street and the cocktail set of Lower Broadway,” McGarry added. “He really did live both of those lives.”
It helped solidify the decision to revive the once scandalous-plagued name as their own.
Downstairs, in the Dead Rabbit’s “tap room”—a term once used to describe a more beer-focused commoner’s pub—sawdust covers almost every inch of the floor. Along with the brews on tap, the pub also offers bottled punch, highballs, and Pop-Inns (a mixture of beer and liquor).
The venue is often filled with a variety of patrons—tourists, businessmen from the surrounding Financial District, and local New York residence, though straight-off-the-plane Irish natives are just as frequent.
“We have a lot of people from back in Ireland who literally arrive to the bar with their bags as soon as they get off the plane,” McGarry said. “It’s something that they are proud of. Belfast has had its fair share of troubles so any time there is something positive, people from back home tend to gravitate towards it and we’ve felt that. And any time we have people from back home, we make sure that they are looked after.”
No matter the night the space exudes a liveliness that rivals its historical predecessors.
The fare offered to patrons today is a little bit different though.
The current menu offers lobster-stuffed deviled eggs, watermelon salad, steak tartar and pork belly sliders, with daily specials that include bangers and mash, braised rabbit, shepherd’s pie, and an Irish breakfast.
You can even buy Irish groceries from behind the counter.
One level above, in the second-floor Parlor, things “get a little more refined and little more sophisticated but more liquor-oriented,” according to McGarry. “It’s all based on the traditional cocktail lounge.”
It’s where McGarry, who also tended bar at London’s well-known Milk & Honey, crafted his first menu of over 72 historically accurate cocktails and communal punches based on the culture and politics of 19th-century Manhattan (it won “World’s Best Cocktail Menu” in 2013, when McGarry also won “International Bartender of the Year”).
His second menu celebrated the life of John Morrissey.
Punches, which are often seen as a lowbrow fraternity party staple by those unfamiliar with the history of the cocktail, served as a cornerstone of The Dead Rabbit’s original cocktail program and are something they continue to do today.
Every patron who visits the saloon gets a small taste of their current offering—Raggle Taggle Gypsy, a Pisco and Bacardi mixture shaken with lemon and nectarine juice.
“When we came to New York, we came here with a mission statement to be the world’s best bar,” McGarry said. “It’s been five years of hard work and there were a lot of struggles. And now that one chapter has closed, it’s the start of an even more exciting chapter in our lives.
“We aren’t just going to rest on our laurels. We’re very much savoring the moment, but we’ve already begun working on new ideas for the bar, new menus and how to improve the place.”
Sounds like they wouldn’t mind scooping the title again next year.