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Saturday, February 09, 2013

New pub in New York has "Gangs of New York" theme. You'd better bring your own knife

Your Neighborhood Pub Meets ‘Gangs of New York’

The best new bar in America is finally opening its doors.
Okay, that’s probably an overstatement, so I’ll be more specific: Make that the best new bar in America that’s done in a 19th-century “Gangs of New York” theme. Or the best new bar that’s staffed by an award-winning mixologist from Belfast. Or the best new bar that has a cocktail menu about the size of a small hardcover book – actually, it is a small hardcover book.
Are you starting to get the sense that I’m pretty excited about the Dead Rabbit for a whole bunch of reasons?
That’s the name given to the new New York “grocery and grog” founded by Sean Muldoon, the master mixologist who presided over North Ireland’s celebrated Merchant Hotel cocktail bar (named the world’s best in a 2010 survey by the Tales of the Cocktail festival). At a time when the whole modern mixology trend is starting to feel a little tired – see this amusing video – Muldoon has given it a new vibrancy and edge. His establishment looks backwards and forwards all at once – it’s inspired by the past (indeed, it’s situated in a landmark 1828 downtown building), but its breadth and depth speak to the present-day era of stylish sipping. And yes, it has those $14 cocktails that are the hallmark of modern mixology, but it also has an entire downstairs devoted to everyday drinking – as in draft beer (a properly poured Guinness, for certain) and Irish whiskey.
None of this came cheaply or easily. Investors approached Muldoon and his Merchant Hotel barman collaborator Jack McGarry about opening a place in New York more than two years ago. But Muldoon knew it couldn’t be just any bar – or even any mixology bar. The “Gangs of New York” theme – meaning a 19th-century Irish New York theme, more or less – suggested itself because of Muldoon’s interest in the rough-and-tumble era. Moreover, it was an era when mixology (or at least an early version of it) was just coming of age. “There was a cocktail thing at the same time as the Irish thing,” says Muldoon.
Add a fairly substantial construction budget of $1.3 million – no small sum for, well, a bar – and the Dead Rabbit was born. (The name, by the way, is taken from an infamous New York street gang.)
I got to visit the Dead Rabbit during a press party a few weeks in advance of today’s formal opening. I was initially skeptical since nightspots that come with this much hype tend to disappoint. But then I saw what was behind the bar: bottle after bottle of the kind of odd or rare top-shelf stuff you almost never see – say, a 1951 Irish whiskey (it goes for $250 a glass). And then I opened the cocktail menu – essentially, it’s 58 pages of drinks (priced starting at $11) that are modern riffs on all sorts of classic styles. Some you’ve probably heard of – like juleps and toddies. Others are probably new to all but the most knowledgeable of cocktail enthusiasts – like cobblers and daisies. (In case your curious, cobblers were among the first drinks in England to make use of ice – the Pimm’s Cup fits into this tradition.)
But there are all sorts of other crazily ambitious or eccentric things about Dead Rabbit that make me smile. Like the fact the bar staff wears leather aprons – it’s a tough-guy thing that fits the historical spirit of the place. Or the fact that communal punches ($55-$90) are served with teacups – it’s a dainty thing that fits the cheekiness of the place. Oh, and it’s still nice to know you can have that beer on the first floor – too many mixology bars treat beer as an afterthought.
But that’s the point, says Muldoon: As crazily ambitious as Dead Rabbit may be, it also wants to convey a welcoming attitude – much like a neighborhood pub (or maybe a neighborhood pub on steroids).
“A lot of cocktail bars have rules and regulations,” he says. “We just want to be a great drinking destination.”

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