To hold the 2015 menu at The Dead Rabbit is to see cocktails treated as rarified gems. It is not a cardstock slip warped by rings of condensation; instead, there are hard covers, foldout illustrations and a ribbon bookmark. It contains eighty distinct drinks covering dozens of spirits. It is overwhelming to imagine how it came to be. But it’s impossible to put down.
That’s exactly how Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, the co-owners of The Dead Rabbit, planned it. “Our menus always start with an idea,” says McGarry. “We want to tell a story.” This year’s edition of the menu was inspired by the works of Methodist minister Lewis Morris Pease, who tended to the poor and downtrodden in 19th-century Lower Manhattan. Like every Dead Rabbit menu, it debuted on February 12. But unlike its predecessors, the cocktails that accompany Pease’s story are decidedly contemporary.
To open this new chapter, Muldoon and McGarry wrote an initial brief outlining how many drinks the menu would feature, including suggestions for which spirits and flavors to include; reflecting current tastes, mezcal and rum were musts. They gave the brief to head bartender Jillian Vose, who created a wireframe of seasonal sections based on flavor: spice and dried fruit for winter, citrus and herbs for summer. It was up to the bartenders, under Vose’s direction, to develop the recipes. “With the caliber of bartenders we have, we need to keep their creative juices flowing,” McGarry says. “I wanted them to have ownership over the program and be immersed in the creative process.”
Almost every Sunday throughout development, McGarry, Vose, and the bar staff met for taste testing and critique. Recipes were finalized once they’d hit what McGarry calls “The Dead Rabbit level.” Which is what, exactly? “We’re trying to bring something fresh to the table,” he says, “to use ingredients no one else is using, to make drinks that set us apart. We’ve been tasting drinks for over 10 years. We just know a great drink straightaway.”
Meanwhile, Muldoon pored over the physical design of the menu with a team in the UK, analyzing every detail to ensure the experience of reading the book would be as spectacular as drinking a cocktail ordered from it. He’d written nearly 100 pages of “diaries” inspired by Pease’s own writings, which the design team pared down into readable portions and accompanied with illustrations of select moments. “I downloaded all of his pamphlets,” says Muldoon. “It took me and Jack four months to figure out the story.”
Bringing the serving staff in for a taste session, a Dead Rabbit version of user testing, was the final step. “We’ve tried pulling in guests at random or inviting regulars, and it becomes problematic,” says McGarry. “There are too many opinions.” But as the people closest to customers, the servers know which drinks will be popular with guests and how to present the menu as a whole. With their blessing, Muldoon and McGarry put ink to paper.
Few bars rival The Dead Rabbit in their level of renown, something Muldoon and McGarry acknowledge gives them a nearly unparalleled edge. “We have an incredible platform that [gets us] support from the industry, one that smaller bars can’t get,” McGarry says; he calls it a “megaphone.” Still, both men agree small operations like the ones where they cut their teeth can offer guests a memorable experience; they just need more modest expectations.
To bartenders working on elevating their menus, Muldoon suggests they “follow menus like ours and aspire to be there one day, but don’t try to be there tomorrow. Read the right books, meet the right bartenders and go to great bars.” He’s proof that such diligence can pay off generously.
Creating a menu takes time, energy and tremendous thought, and for McGarry, it all comes back to the story. “With any bar,” he says, “if you have a clear vision, and you stick to it and work hard on it, you’ll have a good menu.”