We caught up with Sean Muldoon of Dead Rabbit and Black Tail Pier A whilst he was back in Belfast judging the Jameson NYC Experience and filming with CNN.
Welcome home, Sean – how does it feel to be home?
When you’re in New York and you’ve got a couple of successful bars, the sky’s the limit and you never know what opportunity is round the corner. We had a really tough time before we opened The Dead Rabbit, and you never forget that things can turn round at any second. Coming back home makes me feel grounded again, normal again and I can shrug off all that other stuff that is happening and hang about with my mates and go to my favourite bars. It’s exhilarating to come back and do nothing and just forget everything.
It all started for you right here in The Merchant Hotel – do you feel a bit of nostalgia sitting here today?
Every single time I come back to Belfast I always pop in to the Merchant. I don’t tell them I’m coming, I just walk in. There are a couple of guys working at the bar that have been here since we were here, so yes it’s where it all started and feels great to be back. It’s always good to see these guys that worked with me when I was here six years ago.
A lot has changed for you in the last six years – tell us a bit about your journey over the last four years?
We had the best bar in the world in Belfast and we went over to NYC with the intention of doing the same again. People would say ‘are you surprised at how quickly the success came about in New York?’ and I say it wasn’t quick at all. I’d been working in bars since 1992 and it was 2012 before I opened The Dead Rabbit bar. So it took me 20 years from when I started in bartending to get that bar open. We went over with the right attitude; it took us two and a half years to get open once we got there and we had to go through a lot. It wasn’t like we just went there and opened the bar. It was two and a half years of real hard work, slog and belief. When we got those doors opened, it was like game on – this is where we need to be.
You were a judge at the Jameson NYC Experience How did you feel about the standard of entries for the Jameson NYC Experience?
The standard of entries was much better than expected. When I come back to Belfast I normally drink in pubs – I don’t go to cocktail bars as often as I should. Seeing the bartenders in action at the Jameson NYC Experience was a pleasant surprise. There were some nerves at first, but once the bartenders settled down they found their groove. It was very exhilarating to see so many confident bartenders – I was expecting a lot more nervous bartenders. That confidence only comes with more experience but I was really pleasantly surprised by it.
Was it difficult deciding who the winner should be?
It was really down to two people. There were different people who were better in different areas. If it was all about your presentation – how you conducted yourself and how you spoke, there was one person who would have won hands down. If it was just about the presentation of the cocktail, a different person would have won. If it was just about the taste of the cocktail then a different person would have won. In the end, what it all boiled down to was the best overall person, when you bring together all of the different components that we judged people on, there was one person who clearly stood out.
Tell us your thoughts about the winner?
Nicole, who works at Muriel’s Café Bar, was a very worthy winner. Watching her present and seeing how happy she was – she was in a good place behind the bar. She felt comfortable, she was smiling, she was laughing and made a fantastic drink, which was simple to execute. It was simple to make, it wasn’t complicated – it could be made in any bar. That is one of the things you’re thinking of; how easy is it to translate this drink in another bar? It was a complicated drink to make because of the glassware she chose but yet she showed great confidence. She built it in the glass, stirred it in the glass; she used good chipped ice, she thought about the drink and used simple ingredients. Everybody was shaking or stirring drinks but she built it in the glass and it looked beautiful, it tasted beautiful and overall she came across really well.
What are your thoughts on the standards of bartenders and bars in Belfast/Northern Ireland?
When I come back here, I tend to want to forget everything to do with cocktails and cocktail bars. I want to go to the pubs and have a pint of Guinness, I just want to be normal. I am going to see some cocktail bars on this trip home though because I feel I need to. This was the first time I’ve really seen the talent that is available and that we have in Northern Ireland and in Belfast and it sort of opened my eyes because the standard shown at the Jameson NYC Experience was fantastic – much better than I expected it to be.
What can Nicole expect from her trip to New York and their behind the scenes experience at The Dead Rabbit/BlackTail at Pier A?
Nicole will be making a four-day trip where she will spend time in the Dead Rabbit, behind the bar for two hours, seeing a live service, meeting the head bartender, seeing how quests come into the bar and how we talk to them – just being behind that bar and seeing our service. She will be in BlackTail at Pier A doing the same thing and then we’ll take a day where she spends a half day seeing the set up at The Dead Rabbit when there are no guests, asking questions of the people behind the bar who you don’t see, setting the bars up to be ready and she’ll learn a lot. We’ll recommend she goes to a few different bars and she’ll come into our bar as a guest on the customer side and we’ll send her to a few other bars so she can see live service. The whole experience of seeing behind the scenes, and how this translates from the guest side of the bar…I think it’ll blow her mind.
Irish whiskey is developing a growing legion of fans around the world – what do you think is the reason/reasons for its continued rise in popularity?
Jameson started it all. Jameson original became a big deal in New York. It became a shot. Before that people may have drunk shots of tequila but things happened and things come in and out of vogue in New York all the time, as you can imagine. They now have a range of pot still whiskey, which is something serious whiskey drinkers are interested in. It is new to them much like how Japanese whisky was to them and they are interested in what’s new. Whiskey is the biggest spirit category in America, it’s bigger than Vodka. So, when you’ve got all those people drinking whiskey and then you introduce this new type of whiskey, which is not new to us but it is to them, pot-still whiskey brings a curiosity factor that’s driving interest in the category.
Irish Whiskey is a big focus for The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail at Pier A. Tell us a bit more about that and the whiskey collection you’ve been building over the last four years?
The Dead Rabbit was inspired by two bars. It was inspired by the Cocktail Bar at The Merchant that we worked in and The Duke of York where we used to drink. The intention from day one was that we were going to open an Irish whiskey bar that has a cocktail bar attached to it but the inspiration for having a massive Irish whiskey collection came from The Duke of York. It is a different bar from the Duke of York, it has its own identity but when I went to The Duke of York I always found it fascinating. They always had over 130 bottles of whiskey and you could go up to the bar and some wouldn’t be available but I always thought that was amazing. We have the biggest collection in America, we have about 200 different bottles. A lot of them are for sale and a lot of them will never be!