8.16.17 / New York / New York

At ‘Best New American Bar’ BlackTail, Hemingway’s Cuba Comes To Life

Dead Rabbit’s Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry go two-for-two

“When I read Hemingway it’s like someone is telling me a story, it transports you to right there beside him,” Sean Muldoon describes, “And then there’s his larger than life personality as well…” It’s an apt reference for BlackTail, Muldoon and Jack McGarry’s Cuban-influenced cocktail bar. Step into the downtown space, located all the way at the bottom of Manhattan at Pier A, and you too will feel like you’re in another era, sipping on exquisitely crafted daiquiris that would make Hemingway himself proud.

It’s no surprise that just before celebrating their one year anniversary, BlackTail won the prestigious Best New American Cocktail Bar recognition at the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Muldoon and McGarry initially gained success just blocks away at the Dead Rabbit, arguably (and frequently cited as) the best cocktail bar in the world. “Dead Rabbit initially focused on drinks from the 17th, 18th & 19th centuries,” says McGarry. “It’s very connoisseur driven. I mean, we have drinks for everyone but overall, we challenge our bartenders to present flavors that haven’t really been seen or tastes that people haven’t associated with cocktails.”

That attention to detail is what garnered acclaim at Dead Rabbit, but BlackTail brings a different vibe, as Muldoon describes: “The focus here is much more rum, Dead Rabbit is much more whiskey. And the drinks here, I would say there’s a lot more going on in them, a lot more culinary. Dead Rabbit, to me, is a moodier style of bar and moodier style of cocktail.” McGarry continues, “I’d say BlackTail’s signature is richer, lighter and more accessible. Some people (cocktail nerds) might think BlackTail isn’t challenging enough. Some people might think Dead Rabbit drinks are too dominating. However, I’m very, very happy that both bars have defined styles and are different while the processes are the same.”

[‘Cry Baby’ cocktail]

It’s their commitment to mixology that has won over fans, despite there being a shift in New York cocktail culture. “They’ve been there seen it and done it,” Muldoon posits about bartenders. “They don’t really want to do the whole mixology thing anymore. A lot of them are just fed up with it, and they’ll tell you that themselves. It seems to be that cocktails go in phases, and New York had a big phase of mixology, mixology, mixology.”

In response, many bars have adopted more of an international slant, opting for distinct styles and ingredients over intricate or challenging cocktails. “That style of bar dominated in the early 2000’s, and all bartenders came from a handful of very influential New York bartenders,” says McGarry. But he and a select few peers have still managed to merge influences, bringing unique perspectives to cocktails combined with that same degree of skill and complexity. “That changed things as we came with all our own philosophies that I feel really broke things away from the prerequisite cocktail format. You’ve also seen a surge of former proteges opening bars like Kenta at Bar Goto. I feel strongly that it’s wonderful to have such a diversified bar scene with bars focusing on spirit categories and narratives,” he continues, citing the the South American-influenced Leyanda, the ‘New Orleans absinthe house Maison Premiere, and the aforementioned Japanese Bar Goto as examples.

The design is also a departure from the Dead Rabbit’s old-world bar look, with BlackTail exuding the elegance of a time and place you can only dream about. “It’s what we envisaged based on old photographs we’ve seen from old books,” says Muldoon. “And there are some bars that are old; we took little bits of everything to bring it into this one thing. This looks like a grand hotel bar more than your average Cuban bar. But it’s taken a lot of Cuban influences.” Classic Havana bars like Sloppy Joe’s and El Floridita are references, with hundreds of photos plastered onto pillars in a similar fashion. But there’s also a bright stained glass ceiling contrasting the dimly lit room, adding a sense of grandeur which only the most historic NYC bars are able to achieve.

[Jack McGarry, Sean Muldoon holding the new BlackTail menu]

Another thing that Muldoon and McGarry have made signature are their physical menus. The seasonally rotating menus often revolve around stories (one Dead Rabbit menu was a comic book), and with BlackTail it became an opportunity to learn even more about Cuban history. “I never knew about how the U.S. Mafia nearly succeeded in subjugating the entire to nation to its criminal aims,” explains McGarry, “by corrupting thoroughly the Cuban infrastructure which sowed the seeds for the Revolution. It’s a truly riveting and compelling story and one which we’re focusing on in our new menu.” For Muldoon, what he learned most was simply how warm Cuba is, both literally and figuratively. “You’ve got the hot sun, but all these different cities have their own personalities. The one thing that blows me away is how welcoming and lovely the people are. It’s one of the safest places I’ve ever been to; I never had so much as a cross word said to me in Cuba. They seem to embrace tourists.” If Cuba’s aesthetic helped create the design of the space, it’s that type of hospitality that guides the atmosphere.

Nonetheless, BlackTail has never been a ‘Cuban’ bar, but rather insists on representing an ‘American bar in Cuba.’ During Prohibition, many bars had three options: bootleg, serve other types of food or beverages in their bars, or move the whole bar somewhere else…such as Cuba. “BlackTail is a celebration of the American narrative in Cuba leading up to Prohibition and finishing when the revolution materializes. We document the American’s who shaped the culture there particularly focusing of course on Hemingway’s obsession with all things Cuba,” says McGarry. “I’m a big Ernest Hemingway fan,” Muldoon emphasizes. “He left Cuba in 1961. Right up until the point he left, that’s what we’re celebrating. If you’re going to celebrate Cuba, I think this is the way to do it.”

Blacktail is located at 22 Battery Place, on the 2nd floor of Pier A Harbor House

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