London has long been the epicenter of cocktail culture in the United Kingdom, but Sean Muldoon was able to convince aficionados to travel to Belfast for his drinks.
Muldoon, who once harbored dreams of being a musician, has been behind a bar since the early ‘90s, at first to help foot the bill for an upcoming CD. In the midst of The Troubles (a period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that lasted from the 1960s to the late ‘90s), gunmen walked into the establishment where he was working and started shooting, a life-changing event. At the time, Muldoon stumbled upon a documentary on a renowned Italian furnituremaker.
“I never meant to take bartending seriously,” he recalls. “But then I realized, it is the only thing I know. How could I apply the furnituremaker’s formula to a bar?”
In 2006, Muldoon began working at the Merchant Hotel. His goal was ambitious: not to make it simply Belfast’s best watering hole but the planet’s best.
He introduced patrons to quality spirits and well-crafted tipples—including a notorious £750 Mai Tai. The Merchant Hotel snagged three Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in 2009, followed by the conference’s World’s Best Cocktail Bar honor a year later.
Looking for a new challenge, Muldoon crossed the Atlantic to New York in 2012, where his Financial District cocktail lair and “Irish whiskey haven,” The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, is about to open. The name references an Irish gang that hung around the neighborhood in the 1850s, but the drinks—an array of Fizzes, Nogs, Bishops and Cobblers—conjure up the golden era of cocktailing. Legendary barman Jerry Thomas even worked nearby.
In the Taproom, guests can enjoy a “proper Gin & Tonic” or a Pop-Inn, which calls for Leipziger Gose beer mixed with your choice of flavoring, from rhubarb amaro to chocolate liqueur. Upstairs, in the more fanciful Parlor, frothy Ale Flips and beautiful bowls of punch are the norm.
But “this is a bar for the 21st century,” Muldoon quickly assures me. “We want it to stay classic for many, many years.”
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.
(Photo courtesy Gabi Porter)