Interview: Dead Rabbit NYC
While in town for London Cocktail Week, the guys from The Dead Rabbit NYC managed to catch up with Maya Hambro to discuss cocktail making, single pot still whiskey and maintaining a work/life balance when it comes to alcohol…
So You’re currently in London for the celebration of London Cocktail Week. What do you think of the idea of a week celebrating cocktails? Do you have any similar events back in New York?
We are all about promoting the cocktail culture, our bar, The Dead Rabbit and anything Irish Whiskey related. Events like this are crucial in broadening the appeal of Irish Whiskey and educating consumers and bartenders on the topic. We have things like this in the shape of Manhattan Cocktail Classic (MCC) and Whiskey Festivals, however, nothing quite beats the like of London Cocktail Week and Bar Convent Berlin. European Bar Shows are without doubt ahead of their US counterparts.
I know you’re over here to talk about Single Pot Still Whiskey. For all our readers who won’t know what that is, can you give us a little bit of an overview?
Sure. Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is unique in any category of Whiskey. I firmly believe that the Irish Whiskey portfolio is the most diverse in any field. We have our beautifully soft Blends, our light and nutty Single Malts and our rich and creamy Pot Stills.
What makes SPS different to Single Malts is its unique mash bill. Its a blend of malted and unmalted barley and this gives it a rich, honey, spice driven character. It’s fantastic for cocktail use for its ability to stand up to other ingredients and really stand out.
Your knowledge of whiskey goes past the casual interest and towards the academic: how did you get such an in-depth knowledge of the spirit’s history?
It all goes back to when we started to develop the concept of The Dead Rabbit. We wanted to bring together our two favourite types of bars; the one we worked in, The Merchant Hotel (an award winning cocktail bar) and the bar we drank in, The Duke of York (a down to earth Irish Pub with a mighty Irish Whiskey collection). We too wanted to have a huge Irish Whiskey selection. With this our staff and media were asking us a lot about Irish Whiskey and we had to put in some serious research to make sure we knew our stuff. New York has an amazing ability to snuff out those who are not well versed. We have subsequently become extremely passionate about the category and we will do our upmost to push it forward.
What exactly drew you both to your love of Whiskey – what makes it better than other spirits?
Its diversity and adaptability. We have three great styles with the Blends, Malts and Pot Stills. This opens up more avenues in terms of cocktails than any other Whiskey category.
Can you remember the first time you both tried Whiskey? Did you love it immediately or did you take time to develop a liking for it?
The first proper Irish Whiskey I ever had was Locke’s 8yo Single Malt. I immediately fell in love with it. Its a slightly peated Irish Single Malt. My heart is now with the Pot Stills however and my favourite out of the Midleton Portfolio is without doubt, Powers Johns Lane 12yo. Its big, rich with lots of spice. Great in cocktails or neat.
For any readers who aren’t whiskey fans how would you recommend getting a taste for it?
Start with the High Grain Blends such as Jameson Original. They are sweeter and more approachable. Once you get there, then start going towards the High Pot Still Blends such as Jameson Select Reserve and Powers Gold Label. Once you get there, you are ready for the Pot Stills.
In terms of cocktail making, how do you go about creating a cocktail?
It’s the three F’s- Function (what type of drink am I creating and who’s it for), Flavour (what’s the flavour combination I’m working with or what has inspired me to create this drink) and Focus (the development period once you’ve established who the drink is for and what flavour you wish to recreate).
Is cocktail making a skill that takes a long time to master? How do you learn/did someone teach you?
Yes, very much so. You must have a great understanding of the past before you can go and interpret the future. I see a lot of young bartenders these days getting fast tracked to spearheading cocktail programs or running operations overall, without putting their hours in. You have to read all the books of history and how to work with flavours, before you can even start to create drinks. I was lucky in that I had my partner, Sean Muldoon, there to point me in the right direction with books and helped me understand what a truly great cocktail tasted like. We are perfections and we go to serious lengths to have the best drinks we can get.
What kinds of flavours sit best with whiskey in a cocktail?
Each one of the three styles perform very differently. The Blends work really well with citrus and fruit because of their grain content. Very well in shaken drinks and the like. Whereas the Pot Stills, work fantastic in stirred, boozy drinks such as an Old Fashioned or Manhattan because of the spice, cream and honey notes.
You’ve both won prizes for your exceptional work as bartenders and owners, how does it feel to be internationally respected within your industry? Especially for Jack, how does it feel to be so accomplished and yet so young?
It’s always great to get recognition for your work and to feel appreciated for what you do but we never let that prohibit us in terms of feeling like we have made it. Every day we wake up, we want to be better and want to continually push our staff, ourselves. We never just coast along.
You both must consume your fair share of alcohol – how do you make sure that you don’t find yourselves going over the top with your consumption?
Moderation and Exercise. It’s a constant battle in this industry to make sure you have some type of work/life balance but we are both much better now. It’s important you don’t let alcohol consume you. We have seen many cases of it in our industry. Our focus is our work and the bar but we have both learned to relax. We once heard a friend of ours saying he used to work 100+ hours a week and he noticed when he dropped to 60 or so, that he was much more productive with his time. Working for the sake of working doesn’t get you anywhere. Your work time has to be productive. So we are getting better…
How familiar are you with the cocktail bars around London? What would be your personal recommendations for a cocktail novice?
We are very familiar but its always nice to come back and check out the new spots. The best bars in London are still the Hotel bars. So I’d recommend the likes of The Artesian, The Savoy (both bars) and The Connaught.
It seems like cocktails have been having something of a renaissance: cocktail bars are cooler than ever, the world over. Why do you think that is?
I’d say fun cocktail bars are having something of a renaissance. A few years ago there was lots of serious cocktail bars with the likes of both Milk & Honey’s, Montgomery Place, Pegu Club and The Lonsdale. Nowadays, its more about bars like EO, Attaboy, Happiness Forgets, Nola, Mothers Ruin etc. The serious bars are still around but even they are becoming more relaxed.
Do you think the sudden rise in the number of innovative cocktail bars in both London and New York has pushed you both to up your cocktail-making game?
Of course. We welcome competition. We love this industry and everyone in it but its good to keep each other stimulated and on your toes.
Apart from great drinks, what do you think are the most important aspects of a good bar?
Drinks to be honest are the least important part of the experience in my eyes. Yes they are crucial but they are more of a prerequisite these days. Whats more important is the person serving you, the setting of the bar your in and the brand of your bar. You have to keep a happy and motivated workforce, an dynamic and exciting brand and make sure your bar makes sense.
Why “The Dead Rabbit” as a name?
Its the name of a Irish Gang in New York during the middle of the 19th century.
Final question – what’s your drink of choice on a night out?
A pint of Guinness and a dram of Irish Whiskey- which ever one I’m in the mood for.