Interview by Sam Bygrave
When I sit down for a chat with Jillian Vose, it’s not been a good morning. It’s not because of it’s a Monday morning or because she’s hungover.
It’s because Vose is the beverage director of the famous New York bar, the Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog, and the Dead Rabbit has just suffered a major fire.
Vose is late to the chat because she’s on the phone with Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry and she’s trying to work out what’s going on — where has the fire been, what has been burned, how long are they going to be out of action, what’s the next steps.
It’s a hard time for her, but she makes time for a chat nonetheless. She’s been in Australia making Dead Rabbit’s world-famous Irish coffees with Tullamore D.E.W. at Sydney’s The Duke of Clarence the day before, and is about to hold a masterclass before a packed out room of Sydney bartenders about the Dead Rabbit way of doing things.
Here, we talk about her career, from a journeyman bartender to sommelier to being in charge of the drinks at one of the world’s best bars. She also tells us what it is that makes the Dead Rabbit special, and what she thinks makes a good bartender are great bartender.
Could you give us a little rundown on your bio and how you came to be where you are?
So I am from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which is south of Boston, so I’m a New England girl. When I was 17 I moved out to Arizona, and did that whole took a year off, I don’t want to go to school in Boston like you’re supposed to do kind of thing. Arizona was like — I’m 17, it’s cheap, it’s warm, it’s a party. Like a lot of people do, I was going to school and I needed a job, and a lot of my friends were a lot older than I was so they would always rave about this bar they would all go to called Four Peaks Brewing Company, it was actually an onsite brewery in this old creamery.
A bunch of hippies from Minnesota opened it up and now it’s owned by Annheuser-Busch, and rated one of the best breweries in the country. But that’s where I learned to bartend — if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I can’t go to the bar—
So you could work in the bar but you couldn’t drink?
Yeah, different states are different, so at 18 you can work in a bar but you can’t drink one — welcome to America. You can vote but you can’t drink.
So I started food-running, then I served, then I eventually bartended and managed, and worked there five years. That’s where you learn how to multiskill, how to actually bartend . I didn’t even know what a Daiquiri was, I thought a Daiquiri came out of a slushie machine, I had no idea. My first day on the job they didn’t train me, I’d already worked there for years, and they were like, ‘We’re just going to throw you to the wolves; if you can’t handle this then you’re just not cut out for this.’ And I was like, ‘Great!’ Happy hour was my first shift. I couldn’t pour the beer. After a couple of hours I calmed down, but it was that feeling of being on stage, I will never forget that feeling. I knew everybody sitting at the bar, I’d been there forever — these were my friends, my family. I was like ‘How do I make a Woo Woo?’ ‘Make it purple.’ ‘How do I make a Cosmo?’ ‘Make it pink, Jill.’ That’s how I learned to bartend — I wouldn’t suggest it to anybody. But to came to the point where I really like it — I was free pouring, we had the sour mix, that’s what was going on at that time, this is 2004.
It was a brewery, so you had these tickets and it was a huge venue, four bartenders on a Friday night, it got the point where everybody could see that I liked the tickets with cocktails, so they’d hand me all the drinks. I liked that satisfaction of having a perfect washline; that’s where I started, I was the first person to bring a bar book into the bar.
So you had the bug for bartending pretty quickly?
Yeah, I loved it, I loved that kind of, ‘Alright, I got this,’ that multi-tasking, that adrenaline rush that I got. After five years of working at this brewery-style, high volume bar in a college town, I got into fine dining where I worked with the Jade Bar at a beautiful resort with a very famous chef, Ryan Magarian out of Portland — one of the co-founders of Aviation Gin — did the bar program there, and that’s where I got into like fresh juice, like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of work.’ It was the first time I had a Sazerac, it’s where I got introduced to fine wine, it’s where I started studying to be a sommelier. It’s where I learned about French and Asian cuisine and fine dining.
From there, I had been in Arizona for seven or eight years and it was time to go home.
My bar managers in Arizona were just starting to go down to Tales of the Cocktail and all this stuff was starting to happen, and talking about this BAR five day thing. I was a sponge walking around as the lowest person in the totem pole and absorbed everything they would say.
I was on the Cape, and I realised Boston was not for me – I love it but it’s not at a high enough speed — the rent is still really high, you had to keep your car and have a parking spot and to pay for that. So I did all the math and it didn’t make any sense. At that point there were only three bars I would have wanted to work, and the chances of getting in there — at like Drink Boston — were slim to none. But you looked at New York City, there’s so much to do. I fell in love with it. I went on the BAR 5 Day website, and Paul Pacult answered the phone. I was 24 or 25 at this point. He told me to put in my application, as they were reviewing applications right now.
I got a call from him and David Wondrich on the phone, saying I got in — I made it. That’s when it was still a pretty small group of 40 people that were accepted.
Being a female, there weren’t a lot of females that were bartending at that point so it definitely helped me. There just wasn’t a lot of women in our field at that point.
A lot of people that were in that class, there’s a certain bond with the group of people — you’re kind of family for life. It was the best opportunity for me.
What does the beverage director role at Dead Rabbit involve?
It’s basically, any beverage that goes over the bar, is something I give a stamp of approval to.
I oversee all of the menus as far as drink creation goes, and the team, and I’ll work with Sean and the design team and our marketing director and we’ll conceptualise everything.
Everyone puts drinks on the menu, and it’s me overseeing that.
How long does it take to get that menu out?
It’s a constant thing.
The drinks, after we’ve launched a new menu we take two or three months off [developing new drinks], but I always have a notebook for if something inspires me.
As far as research and development goes, it’s about five or six weeks, and then about a week altogether. I’ll go over it, Jack will meet me at the bar and we’ll go over all the drinks.
We work really well together and feed off each really well.
Because it’s hard to remember so many drinks over five or six weeks I write down the progression of the drink. That way I can see where the drink started, flag something that needs work but could be a great idea.
That’s the best part of the job, the drink creation — I think that’s kind of my best suit.
Sean has the visioniary kind of thing for the storyline of the menu. He fits the drink names to match the comic book [menu].
We have some arguments about a few things — it’s the Irish humour versus the American humour, like, “that’s a really dirty word in a America. You cannot say that!”
What is that makes the Dead Rabbit so special?
I get this question a lot. What makes it special is it’s not just one thing — it’s the sum of all parts. It’s the personalities of the team. It’s the dynamics of the management and the owners. We’re given the opportunity to be creative and give input, and there’s always an openness for change: whatever is the best way, we’re going to do it. I think we’ve all grown over the years.
It’s a fun place to work — we’re all characters in our own way. You walk into work and everybody gives a shit, you never have to worry that somebody’s not pulling their weight.
Having a team like that is rare. From a guest’s perspective, that team mentality, where everybody likes working there, that exudes on to the guests. That’s the starting point.
It’s the lighting, it’s the music, it’s every little thing on the wall; it’s the story behind the bar, it’s the why. And having an answer and having a good answer for it.
What do you think makes a good bartender great?
Any one of the bartenders that works at Dead Rabbit needs to have an understanding of what a Hanky Panky is, what an Aviation is — that’s great. You can teach that. Here’s a book. It’s what you do with it. How you interact with guests and how you are with your team. If you’re all about you? If you’re all about yourself? We’re in this for other people. Yes it’s our livelihood, and yes we aspire to be the best we can be, but if you are in this for the wrong reasons, that’s what is going to hold you back from being a great bartender.
At the end of the day, you need to be empathetic in everything that you do. And that’s with your staff, your guests — I think that’s what makes or breaks a good bartender: it’s empathy.