Sean Muldoon – Building the dream
Words by Sean Muldoon (intro by Simon Difford)
Back in 2011, Sean Muldoon was an Irishman on a mission. Indeed, those who know him will say, he’s always on a mission – a quest for perfection. So, not content with having created one of the world’s best bars – Belfast’s Merchant Hotel, Sean was determined to create THE world’s VERY best bar.
Like many an Irishman before him, Sean headed to New York to pursue his dream - to open the bar we know today as The Dead Rabbit. Within weeks of his arriving in Manhattan, Sean emailed us with the first of four brutally honest diary-like pieces relaying the difficulties and challenges he experienced along the way. These are a salient read for any would-be bar owner and show Sean's single-minded determination.
Part 1. Sean Muldoon on the ups, downs - and bureaucracy - of opening a bar in the Big Apple (published 24/May/2011)
When I was employed as bar manager of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast I befriended a regular customer. His work meant he was based in New York for five weeks out of every six, and he spent the sixth back in Belfast. Whenever he was in Belfast, he would pay a visit to us and was very taken by the quality of service, drinks and standards that he experienced, as well as my personal determination, ability and enthusiasm. He offered to help us out with investment if we ever wanted to open a bar in New York. At that stage I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I declined his offer.
Then in May 2010 I found myself over in New York at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic on a Harry Johnson pilgrimage sponsored by Plymouth Gin. I happened to meet my customer when I was there and he asked me outright when I was going to come to New York to build a bar. "This is where the fight is," he added. "It's not back in Belfast. You've gone as far as you're going to go in Belfast - what else is there to do back there, win another award?"
I thought he hadn't thought the logistics of such a suggestion through at all. "You don't know what you're talking about," I retorted. "Do you think it's that simple to get visas, accommodation, money - how is it realistically possible?"
"I'll invest in you," he said. "What would it take? I'll get the money, no problem. Don't worry about visas or anything else like that. All I want to know is would you prepared to give up everything to pursue your dream? If everything was made possible for you, would you come here and do it?"
He was offering me the chance to come to New York and create my own bar from scratch. It all seemed highly improbable to me but I finally admitted I was interested.
Over the next few days, I met him and several of his investor friends. They told me to go away and create my dream bar, regardless of cost. They said I had one chance only to get this right, so I should think about it long and hard and come back to them with a business plan.
Over the next month or two I came up with the idea of creating a mid-nineteenth century community tavern called "The Dead Rabbit" - a world away from the luxury of the Merchant Hotel, it would be a rough and ready tavern that would serve great quality food and specialize in cocktails. As much as I love cocktails, I also love drinking in old taverns and I felt my 'dream bar' should amalgamate the two styles.
The Dead Rabbits were an Irish gang in New York City in the 1850s, whose name translated as "men to be greatly feared". In riots their emblem was a dead rabbit impaled on a spike and I felt that the name, together with this type of imagery might conjure a little controversy, which is always a good thing in my opinion.
The investors liked the idea and decided to go about making it all happen. The first thing they did was sort out my visa for me and create a job for me here in New York. I arrived in New York in November 2010 and am currently passing my time working in the back bar of Harry's Bar down in the Financial District, getting to know the city while I develop the Dead Rabbit concept.
I'm already settled in although it has to be said that the first few weeks, getting set up and organized over here, proved to be very problematic and stressful indeed - everything from getting my accommodation and social security number to bank account arranged was fraught with difficulty.
I've also been out studying all the very old bars in the city and have just now started checking out all the cocktail bars. I take a note of every single thing I see that I like and usually don't make my presence known. I like to hover 'under the radar' at the moment, watching all but saying nothing. My favourite by far - at least in terms of drinks - is Milk & Honey. My second - and again, only as far as drinks go - is Mayahuel. I think they are doing some amazing stuff with tequila - which is my least favourite category. My third favorite is a new addition to the Manhattan scene - and this time, not just drinks, but processes, space, bar lay-out etc - and is Weatherup in Tribeca.
I have been visiting the various neighbourhoods and trying to establish where I would most like the location of the Dead Rabbit to be. The four areas we're concentrating on are the Flatiron District, Coopers Square/the Bowery, Chinatown and the Financial District. We're about to appoint a broker to find us a desired site and the idea is to then secure the lease. One of the investors is a publican with a proven track record of opening and running bars and is already the proprietor of four very successful establishments in New York, so he is extremely well versed in architects, community boards, residents and work permits etc.
One of the first things I've learned living here is that everything seems to take so much longer to happen than it does back home in Ireland - the processes involved in opening a bar are much, much more difficult.
What we are looking to procure an existing bar or restaurant with a full liquor license. Ideally it ought to be a 1400 2000 square feet ground floor space with a basement; prominent frontage, high ceilings and a high level of passing foot trade are essential. We are looking to take out a 10-year-lease on the property.
We have pinpointed certain streets, for example: Mulberry, Mott Streets in Chinatown/ Little Italy; Stone, Pearl, South William, Fulton, Wall Streets in the Financial District; 17th-23rd streets around Broadway and 5th Avenue in the Flatiron District. We have to appoint a broker, who will arrange site visits for us in premises that are already up for rent and will also approach the tenants of 'suffering businesses' on our behalf and offer them key money to buy their business from them. It's all taking a bit longer than I first thought but that is not a bad thing to be honest, for the longer I'm here the more I'm learning. It can be extremely frustrating at times, but the main thing to me is that the process is in motion.
If I'm honest, I'm hoping we find the site in the Flatiron District. The buildings there have prominent frontage, high ceilings, passing foot trade and the area itself is practically right in the middle of the East and West Villages. Another good thing about Flatiron is that it falls under 'Community Board 5', whereas bars in the East Village fall under 'Community Board 3' and bars in the West Village fall under 'Community Board 2'. A 'Community Board' is like a local residents association which approves or disapproves applications for bar and restaurant licenses in monthly hearings - and Community Boards 2 and 3 are the most notorious for being problematic and for disapproving licenses.
Once a premises has been found and a contingency lease negotiated with the landlord, an engineer is sent to inspect the building and an architect assigned to draw a plan of our intentions, an application to open the bar must then be sent to the local Community Board. Even if you have bought an existing bar or restaurant with a full liquor license, you must still seek approval from the local Community Board to 'transfer' the existing license over into the new business. It could be that the existing bar might have had a 4am licence whereas you might only be granted a 2am licence. The Community Board will also take other things into consideration, such as noise complaints from neighbours during the previous tenant's occupancy. Over here, the neighbour is king and you have to stay on their good side, especially those who might be living directly above the bar.
Once we get that approval, we'll then apply for a work permit to refurbish the existing premises. It might seem like we've a long way to go but I'm convinced that we will have found the site, got our license approved, have our work permits to carry out necessary work and have the doors open by September/October at the very latest.
Living in New York is as tough as it gets. It's a place that is totally unlike anywhere else I've ever lived. I've discovered that I'm going to have to make things happen myself if they are indeed to happen at all. Nobody is going to hold my hand and show me the way - investors are investors and they are busy with their own lives. You can be high as the sky one day and as low as the ground the next day - a complete roller-coaster of emotions. But the thing that gives me comfort is knowing that most people living here feel exactly the same way. We're all in exactly the same boat and have all come here to succeed.
That being said, it has to be said that I am becoming more and more agitated as time goes by. The novelty period is definitely over now and when I was home in Ireland recently, everybody commented that my mood was markedly different than usual: I was told I was 'very quiet' and 'not really with it'.
Finding the right site for 'the Rabbit' is turning out to be a bit of a nightmare. We now have brokers onboard and have been to various Community Board hearings to help us understand the process a little better. We have looked at a bunch of different sites and were focused in on one place in particular, which was just the right size (1800sq ft) in the right area (Flatiron District) and made very sound business sense for us to pursue. It had been a newly opened restaurant/bar that had closed just two months previous. The previous tenant had spent a lot of money doing the place up: it came complete with brand new air-conditioning system, a fully-fitted kitchen, prominent frontage and everything was in fine working order. The tenant had occupied it for four months only, because he soon realized - having had no previous experience - that running a bar/restaurant was much more difficult than he'd first imagined.
We investigated the history of the building thoroughly. We had to look at things such as Department of Building (DOB) Records online and sought a Certificate of Occupancy (C of 0) for the premises. When we looked through the DOB records we discovered that some jobs were disapproved, and whilst it was possible that they had been since cleared up, we weren't seeing them on the paperwork. We also wanted to learn more clearly as to where the C of O or Letter of No Objection lay - as one or other would be needed in an approved DOB space to pull a liquor license.
We were told initially that the premises had a full liquor license, so we asked if the license was still active and if there were any Community Board 5 stipulations attached, as in early closings etc. We were told that it had an 11am-12midnight liquor license Sunday through to Thursday and an 11am-1am license Fridays and Saturdays. This was a major stumbling block for us, as a 4am close was vital for us. The sort of institution that we intend The Dead Rabbit to be will rely heavily on industry people, (chefs, bartenders etc) who generally finish work around 1-2am.
The questions go on and on. We asked if the exterior of the building was landmarked (it wasn't) and if there were any signage limitations (it was limited by the community board). What were the terms of lease, what was its duration and would it be a lease or a sub-lease? We were told that it was a direct lease so we could make our offer for length of term.
Was all the equipment included in the deal and was any of it - such as kitchen appliances and dishwashers etc - leased? We asked if electric and gas were separately metered (we were told they were); if the heat was supplied by the building (it wasn't); if there was a separate water meter (there was). Were there any specs on the air conditioning? Where was the location and access to handlers and condensers? Could we arrange to see the equipment? Did the kitchen hood vent to the roof? Did we have access to the roof? What was the maximum amount of space available in the basement for us to use? Etc, etc, etc...
We thought long and hard about it and even though the property ticked a lot of right boxes and made a lot of sound business sense, two of the investors felt the location made them nervous for a few reasons - in particular the stipulations on the licence, certain DoB issues regarding the Certificate of Occupancy and Violations and the premises having residents upstairs. One of the investors, who is himself already an owner of four very successful bars in Manhattan, believes strongly in following the route of least resistance and didn't believe that this was the easiest space we could pick.
Personally, I think it would have been worth taking this premises on full steam ahead. I felt that by pursuing it, even if it didn't come to pass, we would have at the very least, all learned loads from the experience. If it didn't come to pass, it would have set us back only around $3,000 at this stage and I think that would have been money and time well spent. There is such a thing as 'jumping in at the deep end and learning to swim'; and looking for a Utopian space could take forever. I feel there is also a sense of urgency that is being overlooked, as the momentum is right here now. And summer is definitely the best time to do any sort of bar re-fit/construction work in New York, and September/October is the best time to open a premises. I'm worried if we don't find a space soon we're going to miss these opportunities and that will take us into next year.
I know it's not my money, but I'm fully aware that it is very much my reputation on the line and it's also my one shot to make this work for myself. I did not come here for a 'new-life' like most people: I came here to create the world's best cocktail bar in New York. I'm in a strange place at this moment and I need to choose my next steps wisely. I don't know what will take place in the next few weeks, maybe we will go for the space after-all, or maybe the 'Utopian' space will crop up? I sincerely hope so. I'm so anxious to get started.... This is my one shot at the big-time and I don't intend to fail.
Part 2. (published 28/June/2011)
Even though Manhattan has a population of 1.6 million people living in less than 23 square miles (over 71,000 people per square mile), it can at times be one of the loneliest places on the planet. It's hard to explain, but you do feel like you are a million miles from home and I think you have to be extraordinarily strong-willed to survive the challenges it throws at you. But it is a place where great things can happen, it is a place where opportunities can present themselves magically from one day to the next, just like that.
We've seen more sites and seen a few that we really, really liked but on closer inspection, realized that they all had problems in one form or another.
Today we looked at a real cool site on 19th street between 5th and 6th Avenues - right slap-bang in the middle of the Flatiron District - and really liked it, but it had never been a bar or restaurant before so had no Certificate of Occupancy and (which meant it would be extremely hard to get one). And it was a landmarked building. The ceilings were pretty low also - even if they did give the room a unique 'tavern' feel - and we would have had to soundproof them and take the ceilings down another foot or so.
And we looked at a space on 23rd street just below Madison Square Park. The location was fantastic, the size was just about bearable - but again, the floors above had been converted into high-end residential space, which meant it was pointless to pursue. We looked at all sorts of spaces in the same area - one was right next door to the Restoration Hardware Store which is situated on Broadway directly behind the Flatiron Building, between 22nd and 21st Streets and was the exact spot where Jerry Thomas had his saloon in the 1860s.
Just seen a site that at first glance was the best we've seen. It's a run-down space on the corner of 15th and Irving Place, right next door to the Irving Plaza concert hall and with a pile of great restaurants and bars nearby; The Union Square Cafe, The Gramercy Tavern, Gotham Bar and Grill, The Old Town Bar and Pete's Tavern to name a few. It's big - 2,200 sq feet - and with a serious amount of potential and we could likely get a Certificate of Occupancy for 170 people.
Unfortunately, we've just calculated it would cost more money than we had anticipated to turn it around. Even though we know we would attract a lot people travelling to and from the area and to the concert hall, we reckon it would cost $300 to $400 per square foot and the truth is that we were only expecting to pay half of that for The Rabbit, or less if possible. The search continues.
I'm currently working at Harry's Steak & Cafe in the Financial District. One of my bosses, Peter Poulakakos, is also a partner in a speakeasy-style bar called Bathtub Gin, which is about to open in Chelsea, just north of the Meatpacking District. The bar is cool and quirky and is unique for that part of the city. During the day the front portion of the store, which will be called 'Half & Half Coffee Shop', will act as a small coffee shop, whereas in the evening a door at the rear will lead to a 1920s-themed speakeasy lounge. The coffee shop will stay open through the night and guests can avail of a coffee, beer or glass of wine while they wait on a table becoming free in the bar. It is quite like PDT I suppose, but it has owner Dave Oz's individual stamp to it.
Dave is someone I was introduced to about six months ago and has been a fantastic help to me during my time here. He has given me the responsibility - along with my former barman at The Merchant Hotel back in Belfast - of running and overseeing his beverage program. We have since started Jack's visa application process and the hope is to have him over here within the next few weeks. Jack is also going to play in integral role in the development of The Rabbit and the intention was always to have him here as soon as progress started being made.
Two weeks ago Peter, Dave and I went out to a few East Village cocktail bars. We were sitting in Death & Company on East 7th Street when Peter mentioned that he owned a four-storey property down in the Financial District that he felt would make a really good speakeasy-style bar. The property was very close to Pearl and Stone Streets and was currently operating as a fast food joint downstairs with an old bar upstairs. He said that the current tenant's lease was up in the next month and he would consider letting me take it over if I was interested.
He stressed that it would never make The Dead Rabbit, but could definitely make a very good alternative cocktail bar which would allow me to get my teeth into the business over here at minimum cost and effort before The Rabbit actually happens. I asked him if he felt The Financial District was ready for a kick-ass cocktail bar and he said he did. He said he would do a great deal on the rent and would convert the floors above into apartments, so that we could live in them if we wanted. It honestly felt like someone had taken me and slapped me on the face. Never in my life had an opportunity presented itself to me in such a way - that's what I mean about opportunities presenting themselves just when you're least expecting it.
I went away and thought about it over the next few days and I made repeated visits to the property. It definitely has a lot of potential and I felt it could turn out to be something very special, if done right. It most certainly is not The Dead Rabbit - I think the Financial District is the wrong area for that concept to work in - but that's not to say that this can't be the next best thing and I believe it will be too good a thing to let go. We must take full advantage of it and go wherever it takes us. The Rabbit will come out of it, I've no doubt whatsoever about that.
Between Bathtub Gin, this new and as yet unnamed project, Jack hopefully coming over here and both of us living in a brand new East Village apartment I'm now starting to see some very good times ahead. But that's New York for you I suppose. One day you can be as low as the ground and the next day you can be as high as the sky.....
Part 3. (published 20/September/2011)
When I arrived in New York in November last year I'd had to sleep on one of my investor's couches for three weeks until I got my own accommodation sorted. He was living in one of those high-rise buildings in the Financial District and his room had beautiful views of Manhattan Harbor and the Verrazano Bridge. I remember finishing work early one night and coming back to the room and having a long chat with him about all things Dead Rabbit-related. I took a long gaze out of his window and said: "Somewhere out there right now in the midst of all those lights and smog, is the building that is going to house The Dead Rabbit." Little did I know, casting my eyes over the thousands upon thousands of distant shimmering specks, that the actual location for The Dead Rabbit would likely turn out to be less than a few hundred feet away from where I was standing.
I had realised when we ran the Connoisseurs Club at the Merchant Hotel that while our international speakers really liked our hotel bar, they were also really taken aback by the rustic charm of the nearby Duke of York pub. I therefore figured that my ideal bar would have to be an amalgamation of those two styles: classy cocktail drinking mixed in with artisan craft beer and Irish whiskey - all in the style of an old community tavern. But I still had to find a connection that would bring those two styles together - and do it in a way that was relevant to New York.
I've walked the streets of Lower Manhattan time and time again and have re-enacted all the relevant events of the past in my mind. I have visited museums, old churches, graveyards, monuments; have sought information and advice from New York historians and have read all sorts of books, magazines and web blogs pertaining to the era.
Making the Connections
I let my mind wander and thought of New York during the thirty year timeframe of 1845 through to 1875. I thought of the Irish Potato Famine and the influx of penniless Irish immigrants arriving at the docks frightened and confused. I thought of the everyday lives the new arrivals led in lower Manhattan, the cheap tenement blocks they resided in, the bars they drank in, the gangs that ruled the streets and the politics and newspaper headlines of the time. Most importantly though, I thought of the sense of 'togetherness' that existed amongst them, that had mainly come out of a desire to recreate the close-knit communities they had all cherished back in Ireland.
I also thought about the war and the civil unrest of the era - the Five Points Riots of 1857, the American Civil War and the Draft Riots of the early 1860s. And then to round it all off, I thought about the Golden Age of the American Saloon and the bars that had started to sprout up all over the Madison Square Park area during the same time period - starting with The Metropolitan Hotel (1852), The Fifth Avenue Hotel (1856), the first cocktail manual for bartenders being published (1862), The Hoffman House Hotel (1864), Jerry Thomas's celebrated saloon on Broadway and 22nd (1866), the Manhattan Club (1870), The St. James Hotel (1874) and The Brunswick (1875).
I would create a bustling neighborhood bar-room from Lower Manhattan coupled with the sophisticated Madison Square cocktail saloon of the mid 1800s, in a building from the era where we could convincingly tell the story. I've realized we would need two rooms in order to make it work - the 'taproom' would be designated for craft artisan beers, Irish Whiskey and bottled punch, while the parlor would be for high end cocktails, serving drinks from the era. It's kind of fitting I suppose, as many of the better taverns of the past would have had such a room that was separated from the main bar-room and used as an 'VIP' section for the most wealthy and influential patrons.
A site with real heritage
The building we have since discovered is a four-and-a-half storey commercial building on Water Street, on the same historical block as Fraunce's Tavern in Manhattan's Financial District. Fraunce's Tavern is steeped in history and was a regular haunt of George Washington. Indeed it was where Washington famously bade farewell to his officers of the Continental Army on the evening of December 4th 1783, after British troops had evacuated New York. On that evening, the tavern hosted an elaborate "turtle feast" dinner in its Long Room that comprised of Turtle Soup, Sherry, Madeira and 'Arrack Punch'. Eleven of the present sixteen buildings on the Fraunce's Tavern block were constructed between 1827 and 1833 and our building is one of them.
Before Castle Clinton became an immigration centre in 1855, the ships bringing famine survivors from Ireland would have docked in the area that is now the South Street Seaport, which is just 900 metres east of our site. It is estimated that over half a million Irish immigrants entered the US there between 1846 and 1851. Those who survived the arduous three-month transatlantic crossing - and there were many, many who didn't - quickly realized that life in America was also going to be a battle for survival. The South Street Seaport was then part of the neighbourhood known as the Fourth Ward and was regarded as being the only rival to the adjacent Five Points area in its triple distinction of filth, poverty, and vice.
Water Street itself was the highest crime area in all of New York City and was festooned with brothels, dance halls, boarding houses and cheap watering holes. A travel guide of the day called it "the most violent street on the continent"; another warned readers to "absolutely steer clear of it after dark"; whereas a more recent commentator stated that it was "a thoroughfare of vice and iniquity to challenge the imagination of the most graphic Victorian preacher." Street gangs were as aplenty there as they were in the Five Points and river piracy, murder and general mayhem was commonplace. Just right for The Dead Rabbit then!
From 1848 until 1858 Pete Williams ran a lowly gin joint called "The Slaughterhouse Point" on the intersection of James Street and Water Street. It served as the base of operations for the notorious Daybreak Boys, one of the most treacherous band of killers ever to prowl Manhattan's East Side docks.
Then there was "The Hole in the Wall", which once stood on the site at number 279 Water Street - where the Bridge Cafe now operates - and was ruled by a six-foot Englishwoman called 'Gallus' Mag. She would bite off the ears of misbehaving patrons and pickle them for posterity in a large bottle of alcohol, which she left it in plain site for all to see as a kind of trophy case behind the bar. It was a favorite hangout of ruthless gang leader Sadie the Goat until she got into an argument with Mag and Mag bit her ear off too, adding it to her collection. The Hole in the Wall closed down in 1855 after seven murders were committed there in the space of three months. One of those murders was the well-documented case of Patsy the Barber, who had gotten into a fight with fellow Daybreak Boy gang member Slobbery Jim. Slobbery Jim had ended up cutting Patsy the Barber's throat before 'stomping' him to death with his hobnail boots in plain view of everyone who was there.
From 1858 until 1868, John Allen and his wife Little Suzie operated an infamous dance hall at number 304 Water Street. This place was known in its time as being one of the most licentious establishments in New York City, wherein all types of vice and sexual obscenities were conducted on a daily basis. Allen was considered as one of the most notorious criminals in the city and the vastness of his transgressions earned him the title of "The Wickedest Man in New York".
The original Dead Rabbits
In 1863, 273 Water Street was purchased by Christopher Keyburn (aka "Kit" Burns), who was one of the founders of the Dead Rabbits gang. He opened a dance hall in the house called "Sportsmen's Hall" where he offered a variety of distractions, including gambling, bare knuckle boxing, dancing, drinking, but most notoriously - rat and dog fights. For nearly two decades it was also a central meeting place for the New York underworld in the Bowery and Fourth Ward areas, in particular The Slaughter House Gang and their leader George "Snatchem" Leese, until it was finally closed in 1870.
Tommy Hadden was another leader of The Dead Rabbits who owned a popular dive bar around the corner at what was once Number 10 Cherry Street which had been frequented by many underworld figures throughout its existence. Both he and Burns frequently returned to the Five Points to lead the Dead Rabbits on forays well into the 1850s and '60s. His bar at Cherry Street was next door to Dan Kerrigan's, a prize-fighter and one-time chairman of the Tammany Hall General Committee, and had been instrumental in the 1855 murder of William "Bill the Butcher" Poole.
Financial, not Flatiron
It has to be said though that the Financial District was never my first preference as to where the location of the Rabbit should be, it was always second to the Flatiron area. But the truth is that this particular building ticks too many right boxes and if all goes as planned, it would be our intention to take over the whole building. Upstairs will be a similar style to what it is currently with most of the work being done to toilets, lighting, music system, seating and behind bar. Downstairs on the other-hand will be completely ripped out and rebuilt and considering it is landmarked, the front of the building will be cleaned up as much as possible. Each of the two rooms is 1000sq feet and each is capable of holding 60 people. We would also plan to use the third floor as a genteel meeting room for clubs and individuals and the top one-and-a-half floors will serve as accommodation.
The next phase of the process, assuming we do get the keys, is to finally open, establish, maintain and develop a world class historical bar in the Financial District. I hope and pray that I've got this right, for there are no second chances. Just as it was for our ancestors back in the mid-1800s, when they too were "fresh off the boat".
Water Street, New York
Part 4. (published 17/January/2012)
I've now been in New York for one year. I have to be honest in saying that 2011 has without doubt been the most testing year of my life but, as I keep reminding myself, I came here for one reason and one reason only: to create the world's greatest drinking experience.
On October 1st 2010, I went to a two-hour meeting in the basement of a new bar on Stone Street in the Financial District called The Growler. Present were the landlords of our proposed site, the key investors, and bartender Jack McGarry. We talked and argued about various things and then decided that the site we had been looking at on nearby Water Street would indeed be the building to house The Dead Rabbit. We walked away feeling good: we'd been sitting on that particular site for the last five months and it was good to know that our time had not been wasted.
I've said before, the site is a five-storey townhouse that dates from 1828. It is one of a group of three buildings on the block that was constructed by Edward Remsen and Obadiah Holmes. Ours is the best preserved of the group and contains many characteristics of late Federal style commercial architecture. The building is faced with Flemish bond brickwork and the three upper floors retain the original window openings with stone sills and lintels. It originally served as a 'counting house'. Built along the water's edge, these buildings served New York's active port and functioned as stores, storerooms and accounting offices for early 19th century merchants.
A few of us got to inspect the building two weeks ago and then again recently and, considering how old it is, we were all very happy with the condition of it. There will be a ground floor, open-all-day 'Taproom', which will specialize in artisan draft beer, ten types of bottled punches and Irish Whiskey. The bottled punch will include 10 variations, all professionally labeled and capped and available in three different capacities: 1 person serve, two person serve and 4 person serve. I will be ritualistic in-terms of executions and they will all be served in beautiful sherry glasses. Although it hasn't been totally decided yet, the food on offer will likely include game and poultry pot pies and stews (such as rabbit, venison, wild boar, chicken, turkey, duck, grouse and pheasant), simply prepared vegetables, chicken soup, Welsh Rarebit, broiled lamb kidneys on toast, house pate, cold meat and cheese plates, and seafood (oysters, clams, crab and shrimp).
Pop in for a 17th century 'Pop-Inn'
From here we'll also promote our Hot Whiskey Punch, which will incorporate lemon-infused Irish Whiskey with lemon spiced Demerara syrup and a knob of unsalted butter, balanced with boiling water & finished with freshly grated nutmeg. We will also serve a category of 17th century drinks that were known as 'Pop-inns'.
The second floor will be the cocktail-centric 'Parlour', which will have a reservations sit-down-only policy. Here we will focus solely on reproducing some of the drinking trends of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and drinks will vary from punches made using ice-cream makers, such as the Punch a la Romaine (Jamaican rum blended with the juice and oleo-sacharrum of lemon, lemon sorbet, Italian meringue egg whites, cut-loaf sugar and Champagne); to 'Bishops' such as the Lawn Sleeves (Madeira Wine, roasted lemon, clove, mixed spices and cut-loaf sugar); to 'Bottled Cocktails' such as Lovage (Old Tom Gin, celery, sweet fennel, cinnamon and caraway) and the Christophlet (French Brandy, cinnamon, cloves, cubebs, cardamom and Claret wine).
The third floor will be a private event space that will be suitable for product launches, seminars, training workshops, meetings and parties. And the building has a very well-maintained basement which we'll use for storage and deliveries.
The right site?
Even though I've known the layout of the building inside out and back-to-front for some time, and even though it was from the right era and had the right frontage, and even though it perfectly fitted in with the story we were trying to tell, that's not to say I haven't agonized over the location. It's not the East Village, it's not the West Village, it's not even Nolita or Soho, or the Bowery or the Lower East Side - it's the Financial District. My basic problem was wondering if the cocktail community would bother coming all the way down to the Financial District to come to the bar.
Happily, there are plenty of tourist attractions nearby. We have the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the $40m Pier A Project (which is being launched next year), South Street Seaport, historic Stone Street, Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall all within a stone's throw away. Also nearby us the new Freedom Tower situated on the original site of the World Trade Center and the new $1.4 billion Fulton Street Transit Centre, which will improve access to and connections between 11 subway services. Both will be open within the next two years and are expected to bring thousands upon thousands of additional visitors into the area. The Staten Island ferry terminal, which takes 60,000 passengers daily between Staten Island and lower Manhattan, is also on the other side of the street. Next to it is the Battery Maritime Building which is undergoing an $110m makeover that will feature a gourmet food hall (which will double up as a 2000 capacity concert hall during evening time), a 135 bedroom boutique hotel and a rooftop restaurant.
Water Street itself is easily accessible from both FDR Drive and the West Side Highway, the two major roads running down the east and west sides of Manhattan, and the hop-on hop-off open top downtown tour bus drives passed the front door of the site every few minutes. It is also easy to hail a cab from - In fact there is a taxi rank just across the street from us, right outside One New York Plaza. The street has two lanes of traffic going each way and we will be the only bar to have Irish-American insignia hanging outside on the entire two-mile loop from Brooklyn Bridge in the East, right down and around and up West Street to where it meets Chambers in the West. And as if that wasn't enough, there are 60,000 people living in the immediate area and a further 240,000 who work there.
As for my reservations about the cocktail community's willingness to travel, there have also been some positive movement there in recent months: Rachel Harrison had been doing some positive stuff at the Andaz Hotel which was situated just a few blocks below us on the same street, and Dave Kaplan and one of his ex-bartenders from Death & Co. are about to open a 120-seat restaurant called Demi Monde around the corner from us. On the other hand, some people say to open anything below Canal Street is a huge risk. But there comes a point in time when you have to stop listening to others and go with your gut instinct. I can't imagine us trying to tell our story from anywhere other than the site we have chosen. It wouldn't make sense anywhere else: it wouldn't be relevant or believable.
This dilemma has just been one of the trials that I've had to go through this past year. From one day to the next New York can change from being the best place in the world to absolute hell on earth. There are a few people over here that seem to think I ought to have proven myself while I was here. They seem to think that because I did this or that back in Belfast I should now be able to perform some kind of miracle and turn something mediocre into something that is altogether fabulous. Just like Jesus turned water into wine, I suppose? But I don't think so - the truth of the matter is that I'm not a magician and I don't perform miracles.
All being well we will begin construction later this month and be open for St. Patrick's Day, although I'm not convinced that that is achievable. I've come to know how long everything takes to happen over here and I honestly reckon it will still be another six months before we are open. Either way, it's likely that the building work will commence shortly into the New Year and for that I cannot wait. I'm working down beside the site at the moment and I look at it every single day, envisaging how it will look in a few months. It's very exciting - I feel like a proud soon-to-be parent.
In the meantime, we'll just keep researching the drinks and trends of the era. We'll research anything from clothing to type fonts, music, art, furniture, food, utensils and glassware. We'll research anything and everything that will make our story that one bit more believable. I'll go out and meet people and will be as socially active as possible. I want them all to know about the Dead Rabbit, months before its doors open. I will tell the New York press of our intentions; I will scream it from the rooftops and will make as much noise as possible. After-all, why would I not do that? The only thing I would have to fear would be not living up to people's expectations, and of that I have no fear.