Words by: Ian Cameron
Jack McGarry, formerly of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, has been living in New York for 18 months in preparation for The Dead Rabbit, which he is opening with long-time mentor Sean Muldoon. He tells how their plans for next month's eagerly-awaited opening have been delayed because of Hurricane Sandy and talks about the pressure of meeting expectations of this much-publicised venue.
The site of The Dead Rabbit was in the hurricane mandatory evacuation zone. The storm surge was 6-7 feet, compounded by the full moon and high tide. There was just so much water, it was like The Day After Tomorrow. Our basement was flooded, but in a way we were the luckiest bar in that entire area as we didn't really have anything of value in the cellar yet. Three weeks later we would have had all our ice equipment down there. I know of other bars who have had $100,000 of damage and others have just been completely wiped out - one was completely swept away.
I can't believe how quickly New York got back on its feet. All the water was pumped out the next day, though we didn't have power for a few days and we didn't have hot water - that was inconvenient at the start, then after four-five days you were ready to pull your hair out. I think everyone underestimated the effect the hurricane would have and we're already hearing talk about levies in the future - there is only so much sandbags can do - and we're already being warned another winter storm is coming.
My eight months in London helped prepare me for life in this big city. At the Merchant you'd get an order and knock out the drinks like a machine but not really interact with the customer. I was young and brash, I wanted to be the best, I looked up to Nick Strangeway and Tony Conigliaro: I thought I could be the 'research' guy and the 'new wave' guy combined; and used to look at Peter Dorelli and think I would also be there forever. Leaving changed all that: on my first day at Milk & Honey in London they tell you you are crap and build you back up, and you also have to engage the entire room. That change was very difficult but it got me ready for the big city.
Moving here has definitely been a shock to the system. The quality of life is different: you work, get your wages, pay massive rent and don't have much money - certainly less than I had in London. But the pros are that this is one of the most amazing cities, with a huge diversity of people and ideas. Of course, I miss Belfast. I miss my mum's Sunday dinners, watching football with my dad, and certain other places and people.
My bartending has matured significantly since I've been here and I can see clear differences in style both sides of the Atlantic. The merchant was all about the drink and the execution of the drink. Then at Milk & Honey London I learned to think on my feet and to work the room. Over here I get the feeling that I am on stage all the time and my performance is being scrutinized - you have to give a thousand per cent all the time. Guests are supportive, they love talent and passion they will endorse it and encourage it. They also know good drinks. At the moment I'm noticing people are taking the seriousness out of cocktail drinking - the days of the speakeasy and waiting 15 minutes for your drink are well and truly over. With The Dead Rabbit, we are hoping to bringing everything we have learned but do it in an unpretentious, convivial way.
We started out saying we were not going to do big menus, but after the Merchant we realised that was kind of our signature. Writing The Dead Rabbit's menu has taken nine months start-to-finish. No stone has been left unturned in our research. Because of the way we combine pub and cocktail bar we've tried to accommodate every type of drinker, even health conscious, lower alcoholic drinks. Punch plays a big part at the forefront of the book - I love the whole communal aspect of drinking, the ritual. There are 17th, 18th and 19th century drinks; American, French and English drinking traditions; flips, fizzes and absinthe drinks; 'Cocktails', strictly defined, are really at the back of the menu. Part of my anxiety is wondering if the menu is too advanced. But I always come round and I'm feeling confident without being egotistical.
It's a phenomenal feeling seeing the venue come together. The bars are in now, and in the next two-to-three weeks everything else will come together. We're working on our training manuals, we have an idea of everyone that will work there - we're talking young and upcoming bartenders: I want fresh and enthusiastic people that can bring the room to life, not egos.
The hurricane has delayed us a week or two and we're looking at opening The Dead Rabbit in mid-December. We're definitely feeling the pressure now that it's so close, and sometimes I wake in the middle of the night thinking how much we have to live up to. We've been eating, sleeping and breathing this thing for so long, our lives are invested in it, we've left our families behind and we are staking our reputations on this working. But ultimately I'm confident that this amalgamation - pub and cocktail bar under one roof - makes sense. I know there will be problems but I am ready and I can't wait for everybody to see what we've been talking about for so long.