The Bigger Picture

Fairy tale of New York

In the latest of a series, Emma Deighan looks at internationally-renowned hospitality figures providing a source of inspiration to the local trade

Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon outside the Duke of York on their recent CNN Travel tour

North Belfast native Sean Muldoon is living the quintessential American dream as co-founder of the world’s best bar in NYC but the globally-renowned cocktail bar nearly wasn’t he told HRNI.

When Sean Muldoon co-owner of The Dead Rabbit bar in New York’s Financial District, returned home to Belfast to judge the Jameson Experience cocktail competition, the press were all over it.

He’s the perfect model for that rags to riches story and he’s local. His two-year journey to get to where he is today; operating the best pub on the planet and, more recently, opening a second thriving Cuban-themed bar, is a sequential tale of misfortunes and living on $8 burrito deals.

Sean, 45, who was instrumental in beckoning the prestigious accolade of World’s Best Cocktail Bar 2010 for the Merchant Hotel in Waring Street, Belfast almost boarded a plane to return home to his wife and two step-daughters.

“I walked home one night and Jack was beside me and I said ‘I’ve had enough. I’m not taking this anymore. I’m going home, I’m better than this’,” he began.

It took Sean and his business partner, Jack McGarry, two and a half years to open the doors of their visionary product. Almost three years of living on the breadline.

“Jack bought his clothes in second hand shops. I didn’t even buy clothes and we ate in the same Mexican cafe everyday because it was $8 for a burrito and a tin of Diet Coke.

“I had nothing to show after that time and I was going to go home that night to email everyone and tell them to stick it. Then I went into the apartment we were sharing and there was an envelope with a $5,000 tax refund that I wasn’t expecting. That paid for three months’ rent and if that hadn’t have happened when it did the Dead Rabbit wouldn’t have happened,” he confessed.

The Dead Rabbit

With the help of an investor who ‘didn’t care about us being penniless and wasn’t prepared to listen to a sad story’ Sean and Jack found their location and got to work.

Hurricane Sandy threw a spanner in the works and devastated the local vicinity – another curve ball that still didn’t hinder the subsequent success.

“I left Belfast in November 2010 and it was November 2012 when we were meant to open and Hurricane Sandy delayed us by four months. That was painful. I cannot explain how painful that was. We were in the most badly affected area of Manhattan and it felt like the death knell.”

On reflection, Sean, while still admirably humble, says it was the pair’s fighting spirit that kept them going. “That comes from being born in Belfast. I was born in the middle of the Troubles. You can either succumb to that or fight to be better,” he continued.

“I left school at 16 with no qualifications but I believed I could do better.”

Today, success seems limitless for them both and Sean will readily admit to that. “It’s endless possibilities. Anything can happen in New York. If someone said they would pay us $100m each to open a few bars it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Such are the opportunities for businessmen like Sean and Jack that Sean deems regular home visits essential to keep him grounded.

“When we’re home, we’re normal. And no-one cares as much,” he says and while most would hardly count his recent return as run of the mill; judging the Jameson Experience but more noteworthy – being filmed on a pub crawl for a St Patrick’s Day special for CNN Travel – he still says his ego is in check.

Perhaps its that humility and focus then that has been responsible for the quick success of their second hospitality undertaking; BlackTail Bar in Battery Place – ‘a Cuban-American themed’ establishment.

“People find that strange, the whole concept but we had this idea before the Dead Rabbit. We were thinking about Cuba long before Obama was going to Cuba, long before the flights to Cuba started. People think we jumped on that bandwagon but we didn’t,” he explained.

Sean’s interest in Ernest Hemmingway was the driving force behind BlackTail, which he admits has been a more ‘testing’ project than the Dead Rabbit.

“Cuba is a word in America that you have to be careful of how you translate it. People in New York seem to like bars that are cosy and comfortable too but this is much more grand and people aren’t used to that so they’re either going to love it or hate it. No in between.

“We have a huge painting of The Landing of Columbus there and in front of that a sculpture of José Martí – the Cuban liberator. People don’t seem to understand that,” he added before admitting that initial reception was mixed.

“One woman from the New Yorker magazine was totally fixated on the fake ivy we have hanging from the roof but what she didn’t understand was that to have real ivy hanging we’d need a structural engineer and that would have created all kinds of red tape. Even in Cuba they use fake ivy because of dead bugs and dry leaves falling.

“We also had one reviewer who said our Cuban sandwich wasn’t worth the money and there were better elsewhere so we went and tried them all and they definitely weren’t as good as ours.”

The cocktail list at BlackTail is almost 50 drinks long and mostly rum-focussed, carefully imagined by Jack and the Dead Rabbit’s Jillian Vose.

The food menu ‘heavily features classic American fare that travellers to Cuba would have been presented with at the time. There is a bias towards seafood – the freshest seasonal produce available’ reads its synopsis.

BlackTail

But despite those insignificant jibes the pair are still experiencing immense triumphs that have elevated them to pioneer status within the local hospitality trade so it makes sense that Dillon Bass chose Sean, as well as a few other industry spearheads, to judge cocktail competition ‘The Jameson Experience’, recently.

The winner was Nicole Kane from Muriel’s Bar. Just one woman in the competition of eight.

“She just had that edge,” Sean explained. “But I remember when I was a kid and did cocktail competitions I always felt that the only girl had an added advantage because guys would always give her that wee bit of support. But Nicole had an energy and genuinely won.”

And while he’s very complimentary about the talent in NI, as well as the venues that are executing the cocktail culture that is the foundation of his career, Sean said he’s more contented to settle for a pint of Guinness when he’s home. With the backdrop being that of a typical pub.

“I just want to have a pint with a good ambience,” he added. “There are a lot of younger people here who I know would love to have Jack and I visit their bars and see what they’re about and I will,” he said before giving a piece of advice to those who want to follow his lead.

“People say if you can do it in New York you can do it anywhere. What we did in New York we did in Belfast with the Merchant so I don’t agree with that. The eyes of the world are already on New York.

“We’re both in a great position now, financially, and we’ll never be where we were before the bar opened. We’ll never have to endure anything that bad again unless something catastrophic happens.”

 

IN BRIEF:

NYC DRINK TRENDS:
Whiskey is the big drink. It’s bigger than vodka at the minute. It’s all about brown spirits. When you look at the cocktail menu there is American, Irish, Scottish and Japanese whisky. Irish whiskey in the pot stilled sense such as Redbreast is hot.

COCKTAIL TRENDS:
Bartenders are also working with Mezcal, the smokier version of the agave plant. The other thing they are mucking around with is amaro. They’re putting flavouring agents into that like orange peel, clove, cocoa and leaving it for a bit; hours maybe days and then you’ve got this super concentrated solution that is watered down.

ADVICE:
I was inspired by Morgan Watson when I was starting off. Morgan’s advice was to go to London and work under someone, go to trade shows, see what was happening, subscribe to magazines and travel. It’s important to find role models.

FAVOURITE DRINK:
Guinness and Red wine.

FAVOURITE BAR:
Local, traditional pubs like the Duke of York.

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