Sobering up with one of the world’s best bartenders


by Amy Paturel, MS, MPH

Jack McGarry was only 23 in 2013 when Tales of the Cocktail named him International Bartender of the Year. It was McGarry’s ultimate dream — the bar industry equivalent of winning an Oscar for Best Director. Not only was he the youngest person to ever receive the honor, but Dead Rabbit, the New York City bar he co-founded with buddy Sean Muldoon, won just about every award the industry has to offer, including “World’s Best Bar” in 2015.

He and Muldoon have since opened a second NYC bar, Blacktail. But unlike most bartenders, you won’t find McGarry sipping a cocktail. Instead of developing and fine-tuning drinks, he focuses on operations. Sober for more than three years, McGarry has become a beacon of hope for others in the industry who are battling substance abuse

We asked McGarry how he got clean and how his relationship with alcohol has changed.

Jack Head shot

Q: How did you get your start in the bar industry?  

A: I started working in the local bar when I was 15 years old and my mom got fed up with me asking for money. A family member had been running bars in Belfast so I was able to get a start there cleaning ashtrays and bussing tables. I followed him around to different bars in the city and that’s how I met my now-business partner, Sean. It was the first time I had seen someone making cocktails at an elite level. When I saw him in action, I knew I wanted to get a taste of it, so I asked Sean if I could work with him. We have been working together ever since.

Q: When did you start to become part of the culture you were serving? 

A: I started drinking cocktails right away, but in Belfast, you only drink after your shift. The culture in London was different. Bartenders drink during their shifts and they do shots. New York was the same. But I was mostly clean until Dead Rabbit started winning awards. That’s when I really started drinking. 

Q: What did drinking do for you? 

A: The reason why I’m successful is because I have an addictive, obsessive personality. With me, it’s all or nothing. When I came over to America from Ireland, opening Dead Rabbit was my sole focus. Even if we had to live in the bar, I knew we were going to make it work. That singular focus serves me well, but it’s also a double-edged sword. Once I achieved my goals, I got bored and I turned to alcohol to fill the emptiness. So, I wasn’t really addicted to alcohol. I was addicted to not feeling the feelings and I hadn’t developed the adequate coping mechanisms.

OG Taproom
The Dead Rabbit OG Taproom

Q: When did you know your drinking was getting out of hand? 

A: I knew something was wrong as soon as I came off the stage three months after we opened Dead Rabbit. We went through so much pain and anguish to get the bar open. The bar had won three awards, I had achieved my personal dream of best bartender and I felt nothing. But I didn’t really hit bottom until I woke up in the hospital on March 25, 2016. The night before I had gone out on the pier and got drunk. I picked up sleeping tablets on my way home hoping to just end it all. I must have called the ambulance from my hotel. When I woke up, doctors had pumped my stomach. That’s when I knew this was getting real. 

Q: How did your role in the bars change? 

A: I switched from being behind the scenes with food and drinks to enhancing operations. Sean is amazing at conceptualizing and storytelling. But I knew we were deficient in operations, things like inventory, human resources and training. I took a lot of courses and did a lot of reading about operations. My goal now is to ensure that the overall education structure we have in place is on point so that we’re squeezing out as much as possible from every dollar they spend per head. But I’m still involved with our beverage programs. I make sure the level is there and that’s it. So now my relationship with alcohol is a work relationship. 

Q: What did getting sober look like for you? 

A: I have to manage the disease with ongoing therapy and AA. In recovery, I was in outpatient rehab for three or four hours a day, which lasted for almost a year. Now, I have a rigid structure in place to make sure I don’t fall back. I’m also a huge fitness person, which helps me stay on track. But it is a battle. The addiction is always there. So I have to wake up and take each day as it comes. “Today, I’m not going to drink.” Then it just becomes a cumulative thing. 

Q: How do you hope the industry will change to address mental health?

A: When I came out of the hospital, nobody talked about mental health. I knew I had a platform to raise awareness about mental health issues within our industry. I had a beautiful girlfriend. I was financially secure. I had very good health coverage and I had the support that I needed. Most bartenders don’t have health insurance or the means to recover. So my goal has always been to get bartenders and restaurant professionals diagnosed and then connect the dots to help them get the resources they need, whether that’s medication, rehabilitation or some type of structured recovery. Unfortunately, we’re still a ways off from that. 

JulAug2019NCR_coverTo read the full July/August 2019 issue of the National Culinary Reviewsubscribe to the print version today (now with included digital access). If you’re already a subscriber, click here to sign in and start reading.