Jack McGarry on wanting to be the best, the highs and lows of living in New York and the importance of clean toilets. The concluding part of our interview with the International Bartender of the Year.
Why do you think the Dead Rabbit has been such a phenomenal success?
For an amalgam of reasons. The fact that we are telling a New York story and are not just another run-of-the-mill Irish pub. The Dead Rabbit (TDR) is more of a story about how the Irish integrated into New York society. The concept and ethos of TDR is that of a bar that welcomes people from every walk of life, devoid of pretension, with congenial, welcoming staff – it’s not another speakeasy. Our uniqueness lies not just in our beverage program, but our emphasis on hospitality. We planned on opening a special bar, and we have been humbled with how it’s going. We have amazing staff, which is also crucial; our staff believe in our vision and come into work with the correct attitude and application. We are constantly trying to keep the place exciting and as fresh as possible, which is also very important. Consumers in New York are discerning and get bored very quickly, so it’s important to keep them and our staff captivated. We always look forward to the challenge we have made for ourselves and never rest up.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself during the last year?
That the work/life balance is extremely important. Pretty much since the time we starting working on The Dead Rabbit project we have dedicated our lives to making it work and it takes its toll emotionally, physically and mentally. I believe in hard graft and total commitment to your ideals, but you have to live life. Last year, with the passing of Henry Besant, it impressed upon me how precious and short life is, and as the old adage goes: “tomorrow is promised to no one”. I realized that I have to start doing things that are not Dead Rabbit related and are actually about enjoying myself. Don’t get me wrong I love my job – I love the bar, but at the end of the day I don’t want either of those things to define who am I. I want to experience new cultures, new ideas, new people and constantly challenge myself to be better – not just professionally, but also as a human being. I’d say another thing reinforced this year has been humility. This is the first time in my career I’ve actually seen people come out of their way to meet me; people who know who I am prior to speaking to me. During the ‘tour’ people were asking for autographs and the like. I was really embarrassed by it, but I was brought up to treat everyone equally, and every day I strive towards that. It’s the same in a bar environment. I don’t care if you’re the most important Wall Street banker there is, you will be treated exactly the same as the guy who’s just finished cleaning the streets. I’m all about consistency and every single person whole walks into The Dead Rabbit will be treated the same –with hospitality and graciousness 365 days a year.
Of the numerous accolades you received during the past year which are you proudest of and why?
Obviously, the hat trick at Tales of the Cocktail was a crowning achievement for 2013. Although we set out to be the best we could be, picking up three awards after only being open for four months prior was pretty special. Receiving the International Bartender of the Year award, aged 24 was also incredible. I’ve been very fortunate with how my career has evolved, and I feel like my career has rocket-fuelled ever since I started in the trade at 15 as a bar back in my local boozer. I now have my first decade in this industry under my belt and I’m as hungry as ever to keep progressing. However, as much as I was delighted with the hat tick for the team, and on a personal level for the bartending accolade, it was the reception we received from Ireland that took my breath away, the response has been totally unbelievable. We received a letter from the Lord Mayor of Belfast praising our efforts and informing us that everyone in Belfast was proud of us. We also had a double page in The Irish News, which is a pretty big deal. Another experience which was incredibly humbling occurred when we were finishing our European ‘tour’ in Dublin. We had just finished our seminar and had gone out to check out a few Dublin spots. We then finished up at VCC, and as we walked downstairs there were around 40-50 prominent Irish bartenders there, and they all started cheering and clapping for us. It really meant a lot experiencing that. It’s an amazing feeling knowing that you are potentially inspiring people to take this industry a little more seriously. My philosophy has always been if you are going to do something, do it right and give it your all. I don’t think Sean and I are extraordinarily talented people, but we have a serious work ethic and we know what we want to do. Therefore, I believe anyone who takes what they do seriously and has the right application can succeed also. It would make me immensely proud if we have inspired the next Irish Alex Kratena or Eric Lorincz.
What do you miss from home?
I miss family, friends and places. We left everything behind to open TDR. I don’t regret that and will never look for empathy. As I said [in Part 1 of the interview] the challenges we had to overcome to open the bar were coupled with a move to a different country, a vastly difference culture and not having anyone to really fall back on apart from each other. When we were at The Merchant we had the same drive and vision, but we also had a solid foundation and all of the comforts of home readily available. I miss going to watch a game of footy with my dad and having a few beers; I miss my mother’s home cooking. I miss watching my sisters kids grow up and not being a day-to-day part of that; I miss going to the bars that were a massive part of my moulding into a bartender – I miss the quality of life. In New York you work to pay rent and, if you’re lucky, you have a bit left over to enjoy. You work a lot of hours, and it can sometimes feel like you’re living in a concrete jungle, or even a prison because it can be that oppressive. In Belfast I worked maybe 50 hours a week max and had my life outside of the bar. You had your time. New York almost makes you feel bad for taking a day off and it can be really difficult to do things outside of the industry. I suppose what I’m saying is things in Belfast were definitely easier, but I believe you have to take risks and be prepared to put everything on the line for what you believe.
What do you love about being away from home?
As much as I paint a bleak picture of living in New York above, it is the most magical city in the world. It truly pushes you to breaking point, but if you come through that it’s an amazing city to live in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a constant rollercoaster, but it’s all part of the beauty of living there. It truly is the land of opportunity and I really do now understand what Conor (the investor who brought us here) was telling us about the opportunities we would both receive if we succeeded in New York. We have a lot of amazing projects coming up this year, like working on our book which we just signed the contract for in December. Additionally, we are launching our own Poitin brand which should be available for the summer of this year. We also have our sideline consultancy company which is starting to get some traction, and the new menu that we launched on 12th February. Our travel commitments starting in February this year will take us to Canada, Peru, Miami, Sydney and Melbourne – these types of opportunities simply wouldn’t have happened if we’d remained in Belfast. I really do hope one day Belfast can become like the Edinburgh of old with great bars and fantastic bartenders but that time is a long way off. You have keen and enthusiastic bartenders there, but if they want to succeed they have to leave Belfast, and this leads me perfectly on to the other thing I love about being in a major city like New York or even London – I love being in a city of like-minded people. People move from every corner of the world to live in New York and they all move there for the same purpose: to be the best that they can be. When I said that New York makes you feel bad for taking a day off, it’s because you live in city filled with people who constantly inspire you to be better each and every day. The city is teeming with talent, individuality, purpose and determination to be the best in the world. That’s New York.
Would you describe yourself as ambitious?
I’ve been ambitious since the day I started in this industry. I remember when I first starting lifting glasses in the local the bar manager said, “you’re good kid, but our last guy was better”. When he said that it became my mission to prove him wrong and make him realize I was better than the other guy. He did eventually but as I progressed through the ranks and in different bars, I would hear that type of statement all the time. When I started taking cocktails seriously I came across a guy called Kieran Breen who used to work for Sean, and he said Sean was the best. It was at that point that I knew if I wanted to be the best, I had to go and work in The Merchant alongside Sean and learn from him. When I was bartending there in 2008, I was reading the likes of Theme and Class Magazine. I was seeing guys like Ago Perrone, Rich Hunt, Charles Vexenat and Erik Lorincz winning everything and I wanted to beat them all. I was 18 and hungry as hell. I never stopped and never will stop researching, listening, and practicing to be better than those guys. I remember entering the competitions in those days in the UK and getting beaten, and it fuelled my determination every further. I was still at school during this point and instead of studying for my A-levels, I was reading David Emburys Fine Art of Mixing Drinks and Harry Craddocks Savoy Cocktail Book. It drove everyone mad to the point my mum screaming at me: ‘it’s like you’re working towards a PhD in fucking cocktails!” We then had our Tales of the Cocktail failure in 2008… We were nominated for three awards and lost all three. Sean and I were devastated. However, it then became our mission to win the following year. Sean went about asking how it had happened (not because we were arrogant but we believed we had something very special) and how we could increase our chances the following year. We were told by Simon Difford that none of the international judges had really seen the bar and that we had two options: either bring the bar to them or bring them to the bar. The Connoissuers Club was in its early days back then, and we had mostly UK speakers but we aimed for the top American speakers such as Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders, Sasha Petraske, Robert Hess, Jeff Berry, Dave Wondrich and Gaz Regan. It was like the Irish Coffee story; the Irish invented it, sure, but it was the Americans who made it famous. We hoped to achieve the same feat – by bringing these speakers to our bar they would go home and talk about how good The Merchant was. In 2009, we were again nominated for three awards and this time we won all three: Worlds Best Hotel Bar, Worlds Best Cocktail Menu and Worlds Best Drinks Selection. The following year our dreams were realized when we picked up Worlds Best Cocktail Bar. It was during this time that TDR was in its origins. I guess that would showcase my ambition because I never rest on my laurel – I never think I’ve made it or think I know everything because I don’t. I want to be better every single day.
Do you think of yourself as a perfectionist?
When I first started out in this industry, all I cared about was cocktails, both making the best ones in the world and reading about them but now I see beyond that. The bar experience is what is of paramount importance to me. I see the entire bar now, and everything has to be as perfect as it can be. Everything a customer sees, feels, hears and touches has to be perfect and I think of all these things all of the time. When a customer walked into The Merchant, my first thought was: “I’m going to make you a killer Cosmopolitan,” but now when that happens in TDR, I’m thinking: “are the music and lights at the appropriate levels, has the guest been greeted immediately, are the toilets cleaned and sufficiently stocked, is their chewing gum under the table, are all the lighbulbs on?” It’s the entirety of the operation now that I focus on, and I never let up. I can walk into any bar and know within 30-45 seconds if its a good bar or not, or if the owner or the staff care about the place. You can ask any of my staff about the levels I set, and they will all tell you I’m a perfectionist, almost to a fault. I set the standards extremely high in the bar knowing that they will sometimes not be met, but even at that, it’s still a very high standard. An example would be the toilet; I fucking hate dirty toilets. It was actually starting to affect my shift behind the stick, because I would be constantly asking the bar back if the toilets were okay. To solve this we got a timer which buzzes every 10mins for someone to check the toilets. Needless to say TDR toilets are spotless. I carry that example to everything we do – our menus, our branding, the drinks, our staff, the bar operationally, everything has to be the best it can be. As Sean said to me when I first started out in this trade, “You can’t have an amazing cocktail and a shit cup of coffee.”
You were 18 when you started making a name for yourself in bartending, how has your style evolved since then?
My style has changed tremendously since I started making a name for myself. My primary focus was to be the best cocktail maker in the world when I first started out. I was an ice-well bartender when I started at The Merchant and I didn’t really care about the customer. I mean I was pleasant to them but my attention was always directed to the cocktail and I didn’t see the entire room. I would fixate over a garnish for a minute before serving it to the guest. I would do things like put one ice shard in a highball drink and take it out again to see which way looked the best. I would spray my mint sprigs with fresh water every 15 minutes to keep them ‘happy’ looking. I would regularly arrive early and throw out all the prepared garnishes for a shift if they were not up to my standard (this did not make me friends) and I would throw out a drink in the middle of a Saturday service even if it was ever so slightly off. My mind was all about drinks, drinks, drinks. I’m known now for my theatrical bartending, and the early traces of this would have been in effect in The Merchant. I’ve always believed in putting on a show – my mum is an actress so that’s maybe where I get it from. I hate when you go into a bar and you see a bartender standing there with his or her arms folded, looking at his or her phone or being a prick in general. A bartender sets the tone for the entire bar and can positively contribute to the energy of a room or detract from it. This was something that developed when I went to work in Milk & Honey in London prior to moving to New York for TDR. There you are told you are basically shit and you are going to do everything their way because that’s the best way. I worked there for eight months with some great people and really took some great advice from the likes of David Fisher and Durham Atkinson in respect of being a Bartender, not just a cocktail bartender. It was here that I lifted my head and engaged the bar room, and really learned how to effectively combine my theatrical style of bartending together with efficient round building and the ability to get drinks out quickly. I was there that I realized that it’s okay if the mint isn’t perfect and that it’s more important that the customer gets a really good drink quickly. The Red Room is easily one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced as a bartender. Working a room of 30 or so people by yourself is very, very difficult, and you have to learn time management as you are the bartender, server, bar back, food runner – everything. I would arrive an hour early (a normal thing for everyone in Milk) to prepare for when I worked the Red Room and do things like pre-light the tea candles because they light up after one second and when you needed to replace them all at 10pm (five hour tea lights) as opposed to eight seconds if you light them straight off the bat. These types of decisions greatly improved your night of service. That’s not to say I liked everything in Milk & Honey by the way, because as much as I’m glad and thankful for what I got out of it, I believe they promote robotic bartending because everyone there has to bartend the same way, think the same way, and know everything about everything. It’s like being in the army. That type of environment may work for some people, but I believe that when you built a team in a bar everyone should be different and allowed to express their uniqueness and individuality. I wouldn’t expect a bartender to know everything about every bottle on the back bar but what I do believe in is bartenders being hospitable, making killer drinks, and being interesting to talk to. Our guys are very knowledgeable but I wouldn’t hold a gun to their head and ask them to be. I believe bartending is organic and you grow into it and move in certain directions. When I moved to New York I took what I had learned in both The Merchant and in Milk, and after a while worked in some New York style into it. I remember Sean taking me to see a few bartenders for different reasons such as Doug Quinn for his presence and Christian Sanders for his speed and jigger ability. That’s the thing with me: if I see anyone do something special or better than me I immediately take it on board and do it in my own unique way. I still have that burning ambition to be the best bartender in the world, but I realize I’m not, I’m just lucky enough to be part of a group of bartenders who are all as good as each other – I’m talking about the likes of Alex Kratena, Simone Caporale, Kenta Goto, Marian Beke, Erik Lorincz etc etc. So to sum up, I started my life out as a ‘mixologist’ and I use that term because all I cared about was making amazing drinks, but I’d now call myself a ‘bartender’, because I now realize making amazing cocktails is just a small part of the entire experience.
What are the pros and cons of being a bartender at such a young age?
There are many, many pros. I’m being paid well for something that I love doing. When I first started out I was collecting glasses and bussing on the floor. That has obviously progressed to cocktail making, and now on top of that learning to be an operator. I love the challenges I’m faced with day in, day out. I live for the ‘special’ moments we have in the bar pretty regularly. I’ve travelled a good part of the world and the travel is now intensifying. It’s a great feeling going to all corners of the world, doing workshops and seminars – passing on what you now. The bartenders in the likes of Moscow for example are super hungry, and it’s great to potentially inspire them to take this industry a little more seriously but, more importantly, to learn from our mistakes. The major pro since we opened TDR is the way the bar has been received both nationally and internationally. I love making people happy and welcoming everyone to our home. I’m really proud of how the bar is going and the direction we are taking. Every day I wake up I feel challenged and motivated to be better. That leads me on to my final pro: this industry demands for you to give your all. If you ever think you’ve made it, that’s the day the next bar or bartender comes along and takes you to the cleaners. You can never, ever lose sight, and I love that. I love being challenged – to be the best. I don’t have many cons. As I said, I love what I do so things like working long hours, looking after drunk people etc., don’t bother me because they’re part of the territory. My con would be the amount of pressure and responsibility. Being 25 years old, I have cracked and wobbled since the bar has opened but I’ve be very open and honest (not in an arrogant way) saying that no-one has ever been in my situation at my age. It has got the better of me at times. However, as I said my focus this year is having a work/life balance. I haven’t stopped in this industry since I started ten years ago. I’ve never let up and constantly strived to be better, and I will always continue to do that, but I’m going to make sure that I look after my life with the same level of attention to detail that I give the bar. The drinking has been dramatically reduced and I’ve now started working out religiously. I’m going to be in this industry for a few more decades yet, and I don’t need to go out and get drunk in the bar every night. Since I’ve started to do this, I’ve been much more productive with my time, I have a clear mind and I’m more focused now than I’ve ever been. Going back to what I said though – I feel like I never really lived a young persons life like going out, being with your mates, doing stupid things that young people do. I let loose when I worked at Milk and lived like a young bartender, but that’s the only time I’ve done so, and it will be the last. You see, I’ve chosen this path and as much as I think I’ve missed out on certain things, I have an amazing life, full of opportunity, full of promise and full of challenges. The pressure and responsibility is something I’m fine with, and I feel I am in the best condition I’ve ever been since I started in this industry.
You and Sean have worked together for six years, how do your personalities complement each other?
We both have the same mindset, which is to be the best that we can be. Sean is quite a few years older than me, and he has guided me terrifically from a professional perspective. He’s been an amazing mentor and I can’t really thank him enough for everything he has done for me. I’d describe Sean as intensely driven and passionate, but one of his biggest attributes is his unselfishness when it comes to his standing. He’s a visionary. When I first met Sean in The Merchant to talk about the possibility of joining his team he showed me two pieces of ice: one was crystal clear and perfectly cut, and the other was cloudy and jagged. He asked me what type of bartender did I want to be. I said the first piece of ice and from that moment I’ve never looked back. He allows you to make your own mistakes, advises how to deal with those decisions and never stands in the way of talent. I started out in The Merchant when I just turned 18. Within a year Sean had practically allowed me to reshape and add a lot more definition to the beverage program he had in place there. You see, Sean wants the best and there is absolutely no ego about it. Our relationship has been like that ever since – he has constantly allowed me to develop at my own pace and we are now business partners. If Sean had been a selfish person or wanted all the glory we wouldn’t have lasted. Our partnership is based on trust, loyalty, a great work ethic and having a shared set of goals.
You’re 24 and co-owner of one of the most popular bars in New York, what next?
We have quite a few projects lined up for 2014 as I said above. We are working on our own Poitin label which will launch in the summer of this year, we are about to start work on our book which will be released in 2015, we also have our new cocktail menu which launches in February. On top of all this our sideline company is now started to get some traction. We have a cocktail gig in Miami next month and signed a deal to do beverage programs for an entire terminal in a major NYC airport. We also have a good deal of travel coming up. This takes us up pretty much to the end of this year and I reckon that’s when Sean and I will start thinking about another spot.
Do you have plans to roll out the Dead Rabbit to other cities?
We will not be rolling out TDR nationally or internationally. The Dead Rabbit is a New York story and it wouldn’t be relevant anywhere else. That’s not to say the concept wouldn’t work elsewhere because I very much believe that it would. We were offered a huge amount for a project to open up bars nationally but we refused because we’re not ready to do so. We have seen countless operators growing too fast and everything starts to suffer and eventually you lose the lot. We will not do that. Everything we do is thought out and strategic. We do want more but all at our own pace. We really want to redefine Irish pubs. We feel a lot of operators – particularly in America – hide behind the umbrella of being an Irish Bar, meaning they can get away with offering a shit product. That really pisses us off. We want Irish bars (or at the very least our interpretation of Irish bars) to be known for excellence and the highest standards of hospitality. We are looking at other markets such as London, Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco etc. Our next bar will probably be in New York though but we wouldn’t rule anything out.