New York City’s world-famous and award-winning bar, The Dead Rabbit, taps into the relationship between music and Irish whiskey culture
Written by Gabrielle Nicole Pharms
The solid connection between music and whiskey has long been part of imbibe culture. Just think: whether attending a massive stadium concert or an intimate live showcase at a local bar, you soak in the ambience with a dram or cocktail. And renowned New York City bar The Dead Rabbit has spent the last decade tapping into rich Irish pub culture with delicious drinks and an equally appealing soundtrack in the background.
“Music definitely has an extensive relationship with cocktails. You only need to look at the symbiotic relationship between the advent [of] Prohibition era and the proliferation of jazz. This relationship hints at the symbiosis between drinks and
music, deepening and elevating the experience,” says The Dead Rabbit’s managing partner, Jack McGarry. “That’s what we’re trying to do with The Dead Rabbit with our music and drinks programming – deepening and elevating our unique experience.”
Music has always been a staple of Irish pubs, featuring traditional acts across different genres, including mellow indie and folk and the livelier sounds of rock and punk. Upon opening in 2013, The Dead Rabbit focused on live old-style Irish music, highlighting a ragtime pianist and DJ. However, when the company restructured last year, McGarry felt it was time to tap into the full spectrum of Irish-made music. McGarry’s musical idea came to life when he hired award-winning music producer, artist manager, and music educator Liam Craig. As the music director of The Dead Rabbit, Craig manages all things music – from playlisting to live shows.
As a classically trained artist, Craig played the viola when he was seven, then began playing the guitar as a teenager. He later decided to pursue a career as a producer and studied music production at Belfast-based Queen’s University. Craig has taught music for the past 15 years while producing and managing artists as side gigs. Then, in January 2023, he decided to quit teaching and became the music director full-time for The Dead Rabbit.
In a serendipitous move, in March 2022, upon returning from Austin, Texas-based music conference South by Southwest (SXSW), McGarry approached Craig (side note: they are cousins) with an opportunity to help with The Dead Rabbit’s musical programming. McGarry asked Craig if there was enough excellent modern Irish music to feature on the bar’s playlists throughout the day and evening. If it was 10 years ago, the volume of Irish artists wouldn’t have made for a lengthy track list, but with the boom of artists releasing music independently, there are many options.
“It’s a weird, unforeseen culmination of everything I’ve done. Six months ago, I did not think I would be doing this. I resigned myself to teaching and artist management and production,” says Craig. “It’s so niche in terms of its emphasis on music from this tiny part of the world where I’m from, but also so far-reaching in being able to bring the music to the States and give us massive exposure and give artists a leg up. It seems to be the perfect job for me.”
After receiving feedback from the team about the atmosphere they wanted to convey throughout the day, Craig researched a blend of Irish talent and local New York City artists on the rise. “Going back to this whole idea of breaking down stereotypes and negating expectations, Ireland has an incredibly rich R&B, hip-hop, and rap scene that’s been developing over the last couple of years. It’s full of great artists and great producers,” Craig says. Irish hip-hop – which Craig features on up-tempo evening playlists for The Parlor, The Dead Rabbit’s upstairs concept – is heavily influenced by the London grime scene and classic American hip-hop subgenres such as Chicago and Detroit drill.
“With Irish whiskey as a base for cocktails, it has such a rich tapestry of history, and that itself has had a revival of sorts in the last 20–30 years that’s mirrored the music. Music from Ireland is rich in tapestry also and has stories that date back hundreds of years and has grown with whiskey having a revival,” says Craig. “Some people see Irish music as traditional fiddles and banjos. Then, some people see it as U2. So, you’re trying to get people to realize it’s not either of those things – and the cocktail scene is similar. We’re trying to show that it’s not just Irish whiskey on the rocks, but here is this layered, beautiful cocktail, but its base is good old Irish whiskey.”
The Dead Rabbit is readying for two additional US openings in Austin, Texas (fall 2023) and New Orleans, Louisiana (winter 2023–24) – with both new bars designed to capture the essence of the beloved New York City original. “For our expansion plan, which builds on how I’d describe The Dead Rabbit, we want to challenge the status quo of how Irish pubs, and more broadly, Irish culture, are perceived in America. To do this
effectively, having one store in New York isn’t going to move the needle in terms of ‘deleprechauning’ America,” McGarry says. “Beyond these criteria, we want to expand into hospitality-driven cities with strong population density encompassing our core customer consistencies and get buildings that authentically tell that city’s architectural story.” For example, the Austin location is on iconic Sixth Street at the former B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub, which was an SXSW showcase hub and “watering hole” for many years.
The team creating the Austin and New Orleans drink menus will take inspiration from the cities’ culture and cocktail scenes. However, absorbing the cities’ local feel will also impact Craig’s selection of music. Craig says, “I would love to start including up-and-coming artists from those scenes into the playlists. So, it’s like, ‘Here’s the best of modern Irish, but we’re also in your city, so here’s what your city has to offer as well.’ So, the marriage of those two concepts will make this work as the bar expands.” Thus, for Austin, Craig plans to focus on singer-songwriters and country music stylings for the playlists, while for New Orleans he’ll zero in on the jazz world given the city’s long-standing history with the genre.
Moreover, since live music is deeply rooted in Irish culture, “it makes sense… where possible to leverage live opportunities wherever,” Craig mentions. He dreams of bringing Irish artists to the US to play alongside local musicians in order to further highlight the bar’s penchant for featuring burgeoning music stars.
For The Dead Rabbit, the musical programming is just as integral as the cocktail list, spotlighting the vibrancy of the music scene in Ireland “beyond ‘diddly dee’ in a truly authentic way,” as McGarry mentions. Along with the objective to defy Irish typecasts in music, McGarry also hopes to dispel stereotypes around Ireland’s drinking scene. “I’d love for people to stop drinking Irish Car Bombs – it sucks, and it’s offensive – and only drinking Irish spirits and drinks during St. Patrick’s Day. In Ireland, we have an incredible array of spirits, liqueurs, and beers that I’d love Americans to drink more of and in the correct format,” says McGarry. And when you tie in zealous passion with Irish sensibilities at the core, imbibers and music lovers can’t help but sing the praises of The Dead Rabbit.