It is perhaps no coincidence that at a time when social media is squeezing us all into a singular, unifying box - the same thoughts and opinions, the same ways of expressing elevation to enervation, angst to anger - that our outward, visible identity becomes ever more personal, a way of defining who we are to others.
In this context, we covet authenticity over fabrication, and trust those who descend easily into visceral emotion, rather than remaining aloof and buttoned-up. Voters err toward populists who tell it ‘like it is’, and screw up their nose at ‘professionals’ who rely on data, reflective thought, and weight of analysis. We seek to stand out – hence, tattoos, stretch piercings, the revival of the bushiest of beards – rather than blend in.
All of which makes the choice of where we gather to experience ‘real’ life an ever more vital consideration. Don’t believe me? Visit the website of the Dead Rabbit, a reimagined speakeasy and whisky house on Manhattan’s southern rump. There, in near-3D stands a burly chap with a twirly moustache and a waistcoat, flanked by a hunting dog and clutching a rubber billystick and - naturally - a dead rabbit. Waxy of skin but keen of eye, he is a cross between George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and Paul Newman’s Western outlaw Butch Cassidy.
Which really is the point. The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog on Water Street is where you go to hang out with your friends and feel like you’re in the Big Apple of the Gangs of New York, rather than an increasingly safe and hipsterish modern city crowded with the same, unavoidable global superbrands. A place you go to feel relevant and genuine, while enjoying the vast benefits of modern life: fresh and well-cooked food; safety and security; the ability to drink wine, water and whisky without dying of cholera, and so on.
This is not to disparage – far from it. The Rabbit is genuinely well-designed and seriously fascinating establishment: the kind of place you could visit 50 times without having the same experience twice. On the ground floor (or the first, depending on whether you’re a Brit or a Yank), stands a long, curved old-style oak bar (no new-style New York mahogany here). A steady stream of itinerant drinkers swing by during the day, many of them young and thrusting executives from white-shoe firms on nearby Wall Street.
When we arrived, shortly after 8pm, the Taproom Bar was packed, a jam of people two-thick lining up to place their orders. Nothing here is average. The highballs are named, variously, Sadie The Goat, Battle Annie, Ida the Goose. Boilermakers in the old tradition mix beer and spirits, blending, for instance, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale with Single Grain whisky from Irish distiller Teeling’s. Admiral Vernon’s Grog, a bottled punch, offers the punter a mix of Dead Rabbit Jamaican rum, lemon sherbet, lemon juice, and spices.
Then there are the whiskies. After bullying our way to the bar, we settle for a Double Dutch vodka-based cocktail (for my Netherlands-born companion) and, for me, a double 15-year-old Redbreast Irish whiskey. The Rabbit claims to have the widest range of Irish whiskies in the Big Apple, 51 in total, ranging from Black Bush at $10 a shot, up to Knappogue Castle 1951, a 55-year-old discontinued single malt, a single helping of which will set you back $250. American whiskeys and Scotch whiskies also line the menu, which includes a lengthy wine list, but precious few ales.
Another round went by, and we headed upstairs to enjoy our evening meal. The Parlor, which specialises in light bites and small plates, was if anything even busier. A waitress ushered us to a two-cover table, handed out a brace of the place’s unique and made-to-order comic-book menus, renewed every month. (The latest installment, ‘Resurrection’, brings the real leader of the legendary Dead Rabbit gang, John Morrissey, back to life.)
This is the kind of establishment that bartenders love, and for good reason. Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry were veterans of the trade before co-founding the Rabbit. Muldoon is a former International Bartender of the Year winner, courtesy of the Tales of the Cocktail awards. McGarry tended bar at the celebrated Milk & Honey in London. Both were keen to stamp their names on the world, and to realise lifelong dreams of combining sophisticated cocktail service with the best of the Irish-British tavern tradition.
That they have succeeded is beyond question. The Rabbit won Tales of the Cocktail’s awards for World’s Best Bar in 2015 and World’s Best Cocktail Menu in 2013 and 2015). The Parlor offers patrons a range of 72 historically accurate cocktails, many of which have their roots in 19th Century New York. The Rabbit is a carefully branded operation, printing its own calendars, cocktail recipe books and tee shirts, hosting session musicians, and milling its own coffee.
A ‘grog’ shop sells old favourites from many a British and Irish larder, from McCann’s Irish oatmeal (yours for $10 a packet) and Bisto gravy granules, to Colman’s mustard and Branston pickle. The food is good, too. We stretched our stomach linings with two dozen East Coast oysters, before moving onto the main course: crispy pork belly sliders and a proper, old-fashioned corned beef sandwich with slaw and fries. A helping of chocolate mousse cake with red berries to finish was totally worth the sin.
We left and headed back to our hotel via Chinatown, merry and a little groggy after so much rich food and strong liquor. Outside in the open air again, New York was thick with sirens and fog and groups and couples jostling to hear their voices heard and understood, their lives given value and validity. It almost made me yearn for the Dead Rabbit’s halfway house of history, with its reimagined authenticity, where old cocktails are bought to life again in a world where peace holds sway but where, for a few hours at least, you can visit a place and a time where life somehow seemed more real.
Photography courtesy of Dead Rabbit