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From Barley To Blarney: The Dead Rabbit’s latest venture

by Alyson Magee

Who better to talk to about Irish Whiskey than Jack McGarry, currently co-writing a book on the very subject and ageing his own barrels with Sean Muldoon, his fellow Belfastian and business partner at The Dead Rabbit in NYC.

WHAT’S THE CONCEPT BEHIND THE DEAD RABBIT’S FORTHCOMING IRISH WHISKEY BOOK?
It’s always been something we’ve been thinking about, since we started focusing on Irish whiskey when we opened The Dead Rabbit four years ago. We were doing our own research and there were a lot of good Irish whiskey books but we felt there wasn’t a blueprint for anybody coming over from America to visit Ireland that talked about the distilleries, pubs, Irish whiskey and how it permeates through Irish society. We wanted to capture the personality of Ireland, the people that make the whiskeys and the people in the pubs.

WHEN DID YOU START PLANNING THE BOOK?
We started getting our heads around it early last year, and engaging with book agents to figure out who we could do this with. Sean and myself are putting a lot of our own money into it but it’s not necessarily something that I expect to see any money from. We’re obviously in a bit of a privileged position in terms of the bars and our personal profiles and we wanted to make sure we do something to celebrate Irish whiskey, Irish pubs and Irish people.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH TOUR FOR THE BOOK – YOU’VE ALREADY COMPLETED THE FIRST LEG AND ARE COMING BACK FOR MORE NEXT MONTH?
Yes, we’re coming over in October and doing 56 pubs and 13 distilleries this time, so it will be over 100 pubs and close to 30 distilleries in the book. Basically, the way we’re got it broken down is focusing on the distilleries, the history, the whiskeys they make and cocktails that work well with the whiskeys we’re featuring. And then, also, we’ll be featuring pubs within the geographic area of the distillery, so in Dublin we’ll feature seven pubs and do quite a substantial piece on them and we’ll give honourable mentions too. So, if you’re in this area of Ireland, this is the distillery and these are the pubs to go to.

On the first part of the tour, we did a good chunk of the east coast but, on this tour, we’re going to be pretty much doing an entire lap of Ireland. It’s exciting and we’re very thankful of the opportunity but you’re doing six or seven pubs and sometimes a couple of distilleries a day and it is quite taxing. I took my father with me the last time, and he has it in his head that we just travel the world and have this amazing life but he realised what hard work it was.

Tim Herlihy, Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon are returning next month for the second leg of their research tour in a customised whiskey wagon

WHO ARE YOU TARGETING WITH THE BOOK?
The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual, our first book, sold just under 30,000 copies and I see this one having a bit more legs. It’s being branded as a Dead Rabbit exercise, so I see a lot of people in America buying it as we get asked all the time, ‘we’re going to Ireland, give us recommendations’, so we’ll be able to push that and a lot of people who are Dead Rabbit fans will buy it.

A lot of industry I’d imagine will buy it too because it will be a fairly-conclusive guide to Irish whiskey. The lion’s share of Irish whiskey sales is in America, and the book is going to correspond with that, but I would hope to see a lot of sales throughout Europe and particularly Ireland because The Dead Rabbit story is a huge Irish story. On social media, close to 50% of our fans are from Ireland.

HOW IS THE IRISH WHISKEY CATEGORY PERFORMING AT THE DEAD RABBIT, AND IN THE WIDER US HOSPITALITY SECTOR?
It’s our biggest selling category here above vodka and every other spirit. It’s been that way practically since we opened. Obviously we are known as an Irish whiskey bar, so I think it would be naïve for me to say that Irish whiskey would challenge any of the other main category players but what I would say is we’re seeing a lot of cocktail bars now using Irish whiskey, and using it really well and correctly.

It was pigeon holed for so long as these high grain blends you would have as a shot or with a side of pickle juice or in a highball, but now we’re beginning to see that transition from a commodity-type spirit to something that’s much more like a luxury product and can make a great drink and a great experience.

ARE UP-AND-COMING IRISH WHISKEY BRANDS MAKING ANY HEADWAY IN THE US?
That’s the big question, you know: if you take Jameson out of it, is the category growing? It is one of the highest-growth spirit categories in the world and, definitely in America, it is taking off but Jameson is right at the front of that with Jameson Original, Black Barrel and all these other whiskeys that are coming out like Caskmates and Single Pot Still.

So, they’re sort of the Trojan Horse that everybody else is following but there are a lot of other guys doing great work. You’ve got the Teeling guys, and they’ve just partnered up with Bacardi to utilise their distribution networks in America and you’ve got Slane whiskey coming out with Brown-Forman.

And Beam Suntory have got Cooley, so what you’re seeing now is all the major market players or companies have got a horse in the race of Irish whiskey, which is exciting because it’s going to continue to propel Irish whiskey forward.

And then the other thing is I had a concern before we were starting this trip that a lot of these small guys starting up wouldn’t have the capital to sustain them moving forward – because obviously, with Irish whiskey, you make it and then you have to put it away for at least three years and much longer if you want to make a great product – but when we went and saw these distilleries and met the guys doing this, you can see the ambition is there and my fears were allayed substantially.

A lot of these guys are here to stay, and I’m excited to see how they get on when their whiskey’s mature because a lot of the ‘new make’ stuff they’re doing is absolutely fantastic. And it’s great to see the big guys like Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore helping out the small guys as well.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR OWN WHISKEY
We’ve started working on a project with Quintessential Brands, and they’re in the process of building their distillery right behind the Teeling Distillery in the Dublin Liberties, so we’ve partnered up with them to release a five-year-old blend next year. We’re hoping to have it ready for The Dead Rabbit’s fifth anniversary but the thing I’ve learnt about America is things tend to happen when they happen so you can’t really invest too heavily in specific dates.

The Dead Rabbit team is creating its own whiskey , a five year blend, with Quintessential Brands in the Dublin Liberties

From Barley to Blarney, an Irish Whiskey Lover’s Guide to Ireland by Sean Muldoon, Jack McGarry and Tim Herlihy will be published by Andrews McMeel on St Patrick’s Day 2019.

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