From its facade, the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog could be mistaken for any other generic bar or restaurant scattered around Lower Manhattan. But just inside the front door of this Federal-Style townhouse, located on the oldest block on the island, is an immersive tale hundreds of years in the making.
So grab a seat in the Dead Rabbit Parlor, preferably in the back, and get yourself situated with your favorite Irish whiskey. This is a story about how the World’s Greatest Bar brought one of New York City’s greatest and grittiest characters back to life to create an original immersive storytelling experience like no other.
The story of the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog begins with an Irishman who worked on Wall Street and regularly traveled back to his native country. One evening while out having drinks back home in Ireland, he mentioned to a couple of his favorite bartenders that they should bring their cocktail expertise stateside and open up their own establishment in New York.
The bartenders, Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, had previously been honing their skills at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland. While there, they were racking up international bartending awards nearly as often as they were pouring the drinks. Having outgrown the bar scene in Belfast, they were hooked on the idea of a new adventure and packed their bags soon after with little idea how or where they would set up shop in the Big Apple.
Upon landing on American soil, the two came to the conclusion that whatever it was that they were going to do, they wanted to mix their love of casual Irish tavern culture with their appreciation for high-end cocktails in a single establishment. But in the cutthroat world of the Manhattan restaurant scene, mixing two approaches under a single roof could prove to be a risky and costly business decision. To further validate their idea, the two began a deep dive into the history of New York City to find inspiration that could help ground their unique concept.
After months of research, they discovered that Irish tavern culture did, in fact, intersect with high-end cocktail culture during the mid-19th century—1845 to 1851 to be exact—when one million Irish immigrants walked off boats and through the gates of the South Street Seaport after spending weeks at sea in an effort to escape the hunger and famine that was ravishing their country during the Great Hunger.
While the vast majority of these immigrants settled just inside the gates of Manhattan in an area known as the 4th Ward (bringing the traditional Irish tavern with them), a more formal bartending movement involving craft cocktails was starting to take shape a few streets over at some of the luxury hotels and gentleman lounges on Broadway.
Over time, the 4th Ward continued to expand upwards with the arrival of each new wave of Irish immigrants. With this surge of new immigrants came population density, unemployment, diseases, prostitution, hunger, violent crime, and of course, gangs. At the center of this civil unrest was the Five Points. In his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, Charles Dickens wrote after a visit to the area that “all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.” This area was also the setting for Martin Scorsese’s 2002 period film Gangs of New York.
It was also in this area where an Irish gang—who supposedly threw a dead rabbit into the middle of their fights—frequently clashed with Nativist American groups who sought to eliminate Irish immigrant communities from New York City in an effort to “purify” their American identities.
Their name? The Dead Rabbits.
Among others who led the Dead Rabbits during this time was an Irishman by the name of John Morrissey.
Born in Tipperary, Ireland, Morrissey arrived at the small town of Troy, New York with his parents at the age of two. Having lived there during his formative years, Morrissey took a solo trip to Manhattan at age 18 to strike it out own his own.
From the moment he landed on the tip of Manhattan as a teenager until his untimely death at the age of 47, Morrissey lived a life that was fuller than most. From rising through the ranks of poverty in Lower Manhattan as a bare-knuckle boxing champion and street thug to becoming a leader of the Dead Rabbits, Morrissey’s life ended with millions of dollars in his pocket as a successful businessman and member of U.S. Congress.
In other words, Morrissey’s mid-19th-century life was an epic span of ups and downs that were held together by true grit and the blood of his Irish heritage in the face of adversity. Ultimately, Morrissey didn’t just lead the Dead Rabbits, he was the Dead Rabbit.
It was this combination of cocktails born out of high-class luxury paired with rough 1850s New York Irish taverns that became the perfect starting point for McGarry and Muldoon to build their story around, but they knew they needed a location that was just as captivating as their story; a space so immersive that a patron could have a vision of John Morrissey himself walking from the Taproom to the Parlor and it wouldn’t be considered all that crazy.
Through a mutual acquaintance and soon-to-be-business partner with deep connections to New York City real estate, they soon found the ultimate location to build out their immersive 1850s New York City experience: an 1828 townhouse on Water Street that nearly every Irish immigrant passed on their way up to the 4th Ward moments after stepping off the boat.
With the Dead Rabbit storyline and a period-specific location held down, all that was needed next was to connect the dots and build out the world of John Morrissey across three floors.
True to their vision of bringing both the low and high ends of mid-19th-century society under a single roof, the first floor of the townhome, the Taproom, is strewn about with sawdust and appears—as you might have guessed—like a tavern one would stumble into after rubbing shoulders outside with members of the Dead Rabbits, the Bowery Boys, and other gangs that called the area home at the time.
Just a single flight up the old creaky wood stairs to the Parlor is like entering a different world—a world where you might expect to see Abraham Lincoln discussing railroads with a member of the Astor family in the corner while sipping Sazeracs.
Finally, the interior of traditional Irish whiskey distilleries comes to life in the Occasional Room on the establishment’s top floor.
To bring their final storyline together into a cohesive package that every patron could experience, McGarry and Muldoon hired Irish artist Mark Reihill to create a 40-page cocktail menu that embedded the Dead Rabbit story within its pages in the style of a graphic novel. The resulting hardbound book, which Sean estimates they spent over $100,000 producing, feels more like something you’d expect to see displayed in a case rather than passed between the hands of thirsty bar patrons.
Since conceiving the original menu in 2013, McGarry and Muldoon have gone on to produce five other editions with each highlighting a different storyline and corresponding cocktails inspired by 1850s New York City and the Dead Rabbit universe.
So while McGarry and Muldoon may be able to pour you the world’s best Irish Coffee or Sazerac, their ability to throw a great story along with it before you even place the order is a testament to their attention to detail and understanding of the immersive storytelling experience.
But like any great storyteller, the two had more stories to tell.
In 2016, McGarry and Muldoon followed up on their successful storytelling recipe and took everything they learned about recreating 1850s New York City culture to set up a new establishment set in an entirely different era just a stone’s throw from the Dead Rabbit in New York’s Pier A Harbor. Rather than a burly Irish bare-knuckle fighter to build their story from, this time the two chose famed author Ernest Hemingway and his time spent in Cuba as the basis for their immersive story.
Called the BlackTail Bar, the new establishment uses familiar storytelling elements to bring to life to a theme set around American bars that moved down to Cuba during the Prohibition era. With an 88-page drink menu leaning heavily on tropical-inspired cocktails (with appropriate glassware included) and an interior design that Hemingway himself would have admired during his days in Havana, McGarry and Muldoon appear to have their immersive storytelling formula down to an exact science—much like their award-winning cocktail recipes.
Well, as it turns out, they sort of do. According to Sean, the formula for telling immersive stories around their establishments comes down to three simple ingredients.
Existing somewhere at the intersection of time-travel destinations and world-class cocktail bars, both the Dead Rabbit and BlackTail exist in a space that few establishments have ever been able to touch. At the heart of both of these establishments is an element that always has and always will elevate experiences to another level: immersive storytelling.
So while Sean and Jack may be able to pour you the perfect cocktail at a moment’s notice, there’s no denying that regardless of what they put in the shaker, great storytelling is an ingredient at the heart of every recipe.