Ask a Bartender: 16 Questions with The Dead Rabbit's Jack McGarry

Why Irish whiskey is the sexiest spirit, and what it feels like to work at the famed Milk & Honey

Open a mere two months, The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog is already making an impressive run in New York City's Financial District. This is very much due to Jack McGarry, the house’s tenaciously ambitious head bartender, a perfectionist hailing from Belfast by way of London’s Milk & Honey who ever-so-selectively cultivated a notable drink menu with 72 cocktails broadly ranging from different time periods.

As his bar continues to grow, the young McGarry talks to us about not taking his drinks too seriously anymore and instead focusing on the grand picture daily. (And, about how he spends his sparse free time: With a pint of Guinness and absolutely no shoptalk.)

The Daily Meal: So, what turns you on about bartending?

Jack McGarry: It's that quest of perfection: Everything we do, I want it to be the absolute best we can give. It's that constant battle I love, and it's those magical nights when all those little things come together. I remember Sasha Petraske saying that a totally amazing experience shouldn't be able to be defined: For example, you walk away saying, "Wow the drinks were amazing, the place was so comfortable, the staff [was] so friendly, the toilets were bloody clean." It's synchronicity. It's everything coming together, and that's my love. 

TDM: How long have you been a bartender? How old are you?

JM: I started working in the industry when I was 14 in a local boozer in the neighborhood and quickly moved onto bars in the city center of Belfast, and by [age] 16 or 17, I was entering cocktail competitions and winning them. When I was studying for my exams in school, it wasn't school literature I was reading — it was a stack of cocktail books from Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan, Simon Difford, and David Embury that had my attention. I remember getting into trouble with my study supervisor and him shouting at me in front of 30 students saying, "You'll never get a f***ing degree in cocktails and now get with it!" I guess he's right, but it's what I loved. And, once I focus on something, nothing and no one gets in the way of it.

TDM: Where/when was your first gig? How many bartending jobs have you had?

JM: My first industry rodeo was in The Hunting Lodge in West Belfast, and it was something similar to an Irish pub meets a sports bar. After that, I moved downtown to a new bar called Café Vaudeville, which in Belfast we call a Style Bar (a better joint than your run-of-the-mill). After that, I moved to a hotel and a social club. I was following my cousin — who was the general manager in all these venues — Sean Campbell. His philosophy was very simple: Work hard, don't steal, and you'll get far in this industry. It's at the hotel, though, that I meant a guy called Andy Dillon. He liked me, and once he got his first general manager gig in a place called Tatu, he gave me a call. Andy noticed the burgeoning cocktail movement in Belfast and hired the services of a guy called Kieran Breen — a former pupil of Sean Muldoon's — and it's this guy and the practices he was taught by Sean that inspired me to take cocktails serious. When that place closed, I worked in a few other volume cocktail bars and then eventually landed the job at the Merchant when I’d just turned 18. I was there for nearly four years. Once we started to work on The Dead Rabbit project, I moved to London to work at Milk & Honey and then with Henry Besant at Strangehill.

TDM: What was it like working at the famed Milk & Honey in London?

JM: It was different. In the Merchant, I was all about the perfect drinks and everything looking perfect, but when I look back, I feel like I neglected the guest somewhat. I mean, don't get me wrong, I was attentive and all that, but for me, everything was about the drink. When I moved to Milk & Honey, their ethos was different. It's similar to if you go into an electronic store, you'd expect your store assistant to know all the intricacies of the product; that was Milk's ethos. My ethos before that was to just have the best electronic products. So, they were all about knowing everything about your liquors, wines and beers, and education. It was regimental with tests every month and then an end-of-year exam. The biggest thing I took away from Milk & Honey was taking in a bar room. In the Merchant, my head would have been buried in the ice bin or fixated on a garnish, but in Milk I lifted my head and engaged, seeing the whole room, meet guest's eyes as soon as they walked in, said hellos and goodbyes. [It’s] a simple difference, but massive implications.

TDM: So, how do you feel about the term "mixologist"? Do you consider yourself one?

JM: No f***ing way. A bar is about selling comfort. Terms like this make me think of the hospital, and I f***ing hate the hospital.

TDM: What are your favorite pubs and why?

JM: When I get a day off, which is rare at the minute as we are only open eight weeks, I like to go to places were I can relax and [that have] nothing really at all do to with cocktails. So, I'd say places like Swift in the East Village or 11th Street Bar [in Alphabet City] on a Sunday when the Irish Session is on. You'll see me there with Guinness in hand, and no cocktail talk is permitted.

TDM: What bartenders have been inspirations for you?

JM: Well, my longtime partner and mentor Sean Muldoon has been my biggest inspiration. You seldom in life meet someone who has the exact same philosophy as you, and our partnership has developed tremendously since we started out nearly six years ago. He's allowed me to develop and at the right pace; he's my brother and my biggest critic when needed, but we both have the common goal, which is to be the best we can be.

TDM: What’s it like being the head bartender at The Dead Rabbit? Any perks?

JM: Owning a place changes you: You think differently, interpret situations differently, and almost certainly set yourself up differently. I've always been extremely organized when it comes to everything behind the stick, but I'm naturally noticing myself restructuring the importance of things. When I started out, all I thought about behind the bar was drinks, drinks, drinks. Now, it's probably the last thing. I mean, cocktails is my life blood and always will be, but the toilets being spotless, all the light bulbs being on, heat/sound/lights at appropriate levels, all your staff having everything they need to execute a service, and everyone doing things the right way, [that] is what I’m thinking about. Perks? At the minute, I feel happy knowing we are getting better each and every day. We are not firing on all cylinders just yet, but we aren't far away either.

TDM: What do you enjoy most about The Dead Rabbit bar?

JM: It's my love. I couldn't really pick anything out in particular, but as I said, the thing that makes me happy right now is locking up knowing the next day you'll be better. It's constantly striving to achieve that, and [it] makes it all the better it that it's your place.

TDM: What was the particular angle you were going for when creating The Dead Rabbit cocktail list?

JM: The beverage program at The Dead Rabbit is centered around exploring the kingdom of mixed drinks during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. All of our drinks are sourced from books of that era and modified to fit the contemporary palate. We offer 72 historically accurate drinks from 12 different categories.

TDM: What Dead Rabbit cocktails are your favorites?

JM: I'd say my top three would be the Automobile (Pernod Absinthe, celery cordial, Marie Brizard Parfait Amour, celery shrub, and champagne). It's a well-balanced Death in the Afternoon-styled drink. Montana Club (Louis Royer Force 53, Bonal Gentiane Quina, Amaro Sibilia, Marie Brizard Anisette, Dead Rabbit Orinoco Bitters, Boker's Bitters), a style of Manhattan(ish), which would have been prevalent during the 1870s and 1880s. Finally, the Mamie Taylor (Great King Street Scotch, Strega, fresh lime juice, ginger syrup, Boker's Bitters, mace tincture, and siphon carbonic). Just a beautifully clean drink, like a lemonade you could have all day long.

TDM: What are your favorite cocktails to make? And why?

JM: I really enjoy making our juleps because we have moved away from the prerequisite silver julep cup and went along the lines of a Harry Johnson-style of garnish with a fancy wine glass ornamented with marinated seasonal berries, citrus slices, and mint sprigs. It's a showstopper. Once you make one, you can guarantee you’re getting a ticket with a few more on it.

TDM: What spirit is sexiest to you? Why?

JM: Irish whiskey. Well, I am Irish, ain't I?

TDM: For you, which spirit is the most versatile?

JM: I'd have to [say] white spirits in general, maybe apart from white dog or moonshine stuff, which is coming out these days. I love gin, genever, pisco, eau de vie, and even vodka for its versatility. I remember sitting in Chile a few months back: The sun was glorious, and the company was even better. One of the local bartenders knocked up some pisco sour's with a hint of fresh basil, and I just remember thinking to myself it was f***ing lovely — nice and fresh. One of those moments. I love the brown stuff also, but for diversity of flavor direction, white (and in particular, London Dry Gin and pisco) are two loves of mine.

TDM: When brainstorming a new recipe, what’s one aspect you’re particularly striving for?

JM: When working on a new drink, coming from a historical point of view, I first establish what the flavor base [is] and just experiment with it until it works. I use a lot of flavor websites and study how flavor works a lot, but to be honest with you, I really think creating drinks is something natural as opposed to something you learn. I don't really have a set guide of rules or boundaries. I just make the drinks until they work. I mean, we shake our mint juleps, have no sugar in our Old Fashioned's (just modifiers [such as] Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao, Bénédictine), and use absinthe in practically everything because it makes everything taste better, in my opinion. I just keep experimenting until it works and the drinks tastes fantastic, that's it.

TDM: What are your favorite herbs, bitters, etc. to use in your cocktails?

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JM: Our own bitters are phenomenal. They are made by Adam Elmegirab, who makes Boker's Bitters in Aberdeen, Scotland. They are our recreation of the style of Angostura [that] was prevalent during the 19th century prior to the Angostura folks taking out an injunction for the exclusive use of the name. Back then, they had the signature spices notes but also had a lot of bitterness due to the inclusion of Angostura bark. So that's what we replicated, that bitterness, and it gives all our drinks an edge that Angostura wouldn't.