This past winter, barman Sean Muldoon deviated from his past projects — he designed The Merchant Hotel’s bar in Belfast — and opened The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in the Financial District. This two-story gastropub speaks to the time when revelers gathered around strong bowls of punch to discuss politics, love affairs and the current events of the day.
At The Dead Rabbit (a name that stems from one of the original Irish gangs who roamed New York in the 1850s), Muldoon, along with Jack McGarry, his business partner and the head bartender, serves up the same historical brews, including Captain Radcliffe’s punch with raspberry syrup and rosewater and Spider, a green-tea-infused gin drink. You can also order English-style nibbles off of the menu, like fresh oysters, Welsh rabbit and potted shrimp with toast. We caught up with Muldoon to find out more about his history-laced spot downtown and where his fascination with that era comes from.
Why did you decide to open Dead Rabbit in the Financial District?
We wanted to tell a historical tale that brought together the story of the Irish immigrant and the Golden Age of cocktails. We knew a million immigrants arrived from famine-torn Ireland and came through what is now the South Street Seaport, between the years of 1845 and 1851. We knew they settled in and around the waterfront and Five Points intersection, which is now Chinatown. We also knew the first cocktail recipe book ever published came out of New York in 1862, so we knew there was an Irish association with cocktails that took place in the mid-1800s.
Jerry Thomas wrote the book, and he had his most famous bar in the Flatiron in 1866. But we knew there was no real Irish connection associated with the Flatiron District of that time, so next we looked at the Chinatown area, where there was an obvious Irish connection. But we found out there was no real cocktail connection. Finally, we looked at the Financial District, where we again identified an obvious Irish connection. We looked for a cocktail association and found it months later in a 1928 reprint of Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book. In that book, we see a lot of sketches of bartenders who were based in the Financial District at that same time. We asked a few drink historians about the matter, and they informed us that the Golden Age of bartending did indeed begin way downtown on the strip of Broadway between Bowling Green and City Hall. Jerry Thomas’ first bar was actually at the top of Ann Street on Broadway below Barnum’s Museum in 1852.
We therefore knew that the Financial District brought together the story of the Irish immigrant and the gentleman’s sporting lounge/fraternity. Both of these worlds existed side by side at the time. We were able to get ahold of a multi-storied building on Water Street, which dated from 1828. We knew we could tell the story of the immigrant in our first-floor taproom and the sporting fraternity in our second-floor parlor.
What is it about the old gangs of New York that made you decide to name your bar after one?
We were looking for a name that sounded a bit like an Irish/English pub. I researched American/Irish names of the mid-1800s and came across a name that I liked, The Dead Rabbits. They were an Irish gang who operated out of New York in the 1850s and early 1860s. I read in depth about the gang, other gangs, the times, the people, and I came across a character called John Morrissey, and I became fascinated by the man.
What about him interested you?
In 1832, at the age of 2, he was brought over to New York from Tipperary, Ireland, with his parents. They settled in Troy, upstate New York. During his formative years, he got involved in petty crime and street fights and was locked up in a juvenile prison at various times. At the age of 18, he made the trip to New York City and got jobs as an immigrant runner and shoulder hitter. Throughout the years that followed, he became a world heavyweight boxing champ, leader of the Dead Rabbits, king of the Five Points, United States congressman, member of the State Senate, Faro House owner and founder of Saratoga Racecourse, which was the Las Vegas of its day. He made the transition from penniless immigrant and dock runner to become one of the most important New Yorkers of his genre. John Morrissey epitomizes everything The Dead Rabbit is and stands for. He is, in effect, The Dead Rabbit that our bar is named after.
Where did you get inspiration for your cocktails and punches?
I told Jack McGarry to refer strictly to drinks that were first documented in the 1800s or earlier. If we were going to re-create an Irish-New York bar of the mid-1800s, everything about it had to refer to that era, including food and drinks. Although he studied a hundred books or more, Jack’s main influences were William Schmidt of New York, William Terrington of England and Louis Fouquet of France.
If you could replicate one thing from the 1850s on your menu, what would it be?
I would love to offer turtle soup and be able to throw an occasional beefsteak party now and again.
What’s your favorite thing about the 1800s?
For the 1850s, I love reading about the gangs of New York and the characters. In the 1860s, I love the history of the U.S. Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, the Draft Riots, the literature, music and entertainment of the era.
Based on the cocktail recipes you have revived, what would the 1850s benefit from in terms of ingredients for drinks?
Definitely the quality of liquor and ingredients. Back then, fresh fruit was a luxury, and quality liquor was practically unheard of.
What are your favorite bars and restaurants in the city?
I think Maison Premiere in Williamsburg does an amazing job at re-creating the past in their bar. Their concept is strong and very thorough. Of course, PDT is always a great night out, no matter who I bring there. At the Experimental Cocktail Club, head bartender Nicolas DiSoto prepares and serves some of the best cocktails in the city. And back in Brooklyn, Julie Reiner’s Clover Club is an extremely well-thought-out bar that serves both great food and drinks.
Photos Courtesy of Andrew Kist