It’s 9am, I’m in rural Galway, and I’m taking part in a coffee tasting session that couldn’t have come at a better time. That’s because I’m in the middle of a week-long bar crawl through Ireland with the team behind New York City cocktail bar The Dead Rabbit. The coffee isn’t just fuel for our drink-filled field trip, though – this pitstop at the headquarters of The Dead Rabbit’s new partner, Calendar Coffee, marks the culmination of six months of meticulous collaborative work, creating a bespoke roast for the bar’s newly reinvigorated, world-famous Irish Coffee.
As anyone who has visited The Dead Rabbit in NYC knows, the bar’s hallmarks are its robust Irish whiskey selection, fresh pints of Guinness and, of course, its renowned Irish Coffee. And as of this February, the New York bar will have been open and serving its signature coffee cocktail for an entire decade, with a total of over a million made for its customers. The drink has always been extraordinary: a dark coffee roast with notes of chocolate, molasses and bitter orange zest with a dose of demerara syrup, Bushmills Original Irish whiskey, and lightly whipped double cream floated on top (nutmeg to garnish is optional). So why the change? Instead of resting on its laurels, the team is choosing to embrace innovation and a deeper connection with the bar’s Irish roots. This week-long tour I’m joining them on is the actualising of this process – with the team immersing itself in a culture it aims to encapsulate through food, drink, hospitality and ambience back in the United States.
I get in line and follow The Dead Rabbit’s managing partner Jack McGarry around a long metal table as we deftly dip our spoons into each line-up of brews, gaudily slurping each micro-sized pool of coffee as instructed. (One of the expert roasters informs us that, as with a wine, this aerates the coffee and allows us to fully taste the spectrum of flavours.) ‘Forest floor and fruits’ and ‘peaches and orange zest’ are some of the tasting notes chimed aloud as we make our way through the range of coffees, finishing with the new and improved Dead Rabbit roast. ‘This is probably the highest quality coffee that’s going into an Irish Coffee of this calibre anywhere,’ says Zarah Lawless, head of wholesale at Calendar Coffee. Of course, she would say that. But I have to agree: it’s a distinctive brew that retains its subtle citric acidity, sweetness and fruitiness, despite being heavily roasted.
The coffee sourcing process was initiated by McGarry, who identified Calendar as a fit for the bar thanks to its sustainable ethos and focus on roasting fresh, seasonal coffee. Calendar was founded in 2018 by Zarah Lawless and her partner Dan Boobier, head of coffee, a duo who previously worked together at London’s Workshop Coffee before realising their dream of opening a roastery of their own back in Lawless’s hometown of Galway. Their current operation is a small but fierce one, finding its footing in bars and cafés that care about the quality of their coffee throughout Ireland, Asia and in the States.
The Dead Rabbit gave Calendar samples of their current coffee – a Sumatra Mandheling blend – plus notes on the flavour profiles they were aiming for. According to McGarry, they were in search of something just as robust and earthy, but less ‘stewed,’ and ‘burnt’. Beyond this, Calendar was given free licence to create a roast consistent with the quality of their current range.
After six months of email communications, with coffee beans shipped across the pond and Irish Coffee research and development back at the bar, they landed on a heavily roasted version of Calendar Coffee’s seasonal Guatemalan espresso coffee – a roast which still expresses the nuanced fruity sweetness of the coffee, while being bold enough to balance the whiskey, sugar and cream in an Irish Coffee. ‘The flavour has changed a bit, but the result is something we are really happy about because the coffee still complements the whiskey and has a rich complexity,’ says Aiden Bowie, The Dead Rabbit’s beverage director. Since Calendar sources its beans seasonally, the origin of The Dead Rabbit’s Irish Coffee will change depending on what’s freshly harvested, but the flavour profile will remain the same.
The Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee 2.0 is only the tip of the iceberg, though. After a rollercoaster ride of a decade in operation – which included being named the world’s best bar in 2016, and a recent shift in leadership last year – The Dead Rabbit is holistically honing-in on its modern Irish pub influence to begin its second decade of operation. This year, that will also see outposts open in two new markets, in New Orleans and Austin.
As the original bar nears its week-long 10th anniversary celebrations this February, guests can expect to see the evolution on full display, with the turbo-charged version of the famous drink having settled in on the menu back in December. ‘This year we really want to focus on showcasing what is going on in Ireland today,’ Bowie says. ‘We want guests to feel like they are getting a true representation of what modern-day Ireland is when they walk into Dead Rabbit.’ If our tour is anything to go by, that’s one exciting prospect.