Cheers! | 

Meet the Irishman who owns the New York boozer named Best Bar in North America

“I asked the owner if I could have a job. He said: ‘You came all the way from Belfast for a job?’ and I told him ‘Yes’"
Cheers! Award-winning bar owner Michael McIlroy, who co-owns America's best bar, Attaboy

Cheers! Award-winning bar owner Michael McIlroy, who co-owns America's best bar, Attaboy

Maureen Coleman

A Belfast man who left Northern Ireland almost 20 years ago to pursue his dream of becoming a world-class cocktail maker is the toast of New York after the Manhattan haunt he co-owns was named Best Bar in North America.

Michael McIlroy and his business partner Sam Ross opened Attaboy, in Lower East Side at the start of 2013, in the same space as the former iconic Milk and Honey cocktail bar, where they first met.

The pair, who honed their craft under Milk and Honey’s renowned owner Sasha Petraske, saved up their tips over eight years to open Attaboy on a ‘shoestring budget’ after their former mentor and boss moved his venture to a new location.

The tiny bar, accommodating 28 seated people at one time, built up a reputation as one of New York’s coolest bars and a destination hot spot, thanks to its bespoke cocktails and laid-back, speakeasy vibe.

Now it’s just been unveiled as the number one bar in North America at the inaugural North America’s 50 Best Bars Awards — one of 11 New York venues to appear on the list.

McIlroy, (39), who comes from north Belfast, said he and his Australian business partner were ‘humbled’ to top the prestigious list, which saw Mexico City’s Handshake Speakeasy and Licorería Limantour placed second and third.

Michael McIlroy, Sam Ross and Haley Traub in Attaboy, the best bar in North America. Michael hails from north Belfast

Michael McIlroy, Sam Ross and Haley Traub in Attaboy, the best bar in North America. Michael hails from north Belfast

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, a delighted McIlroy, who owns five bars in total, said: “I worked in the Apartment bar when I was young and loved making cocktails. I knew I wanted to do it as a full-time job.

“I wanted to work in the best cocktail bar and everything I’d heard and read about Milk and Honey pointed me in that direction, so I jumped on a plane and flew out to New York.

“I asked the owner if I could have a job there. He said: ‘You came all the way from Belfast for a job?’ and I told him ‘Yes’.

“He said ‘Well, that’s good enough for me’ and I got hired. That was the start of it all.”

McIlroy met Ross at Milk and Honey and the pair, who shared a similar ambition, became friends. Over an eight-year period, they perfected their cocktail-making craft, saving their hefty tips until they had enough to open Attaboy when Petraske moved Milk and Honey uptown.

For two months, the men worked around the clock to get Attaboy ready, turning the bar into a huge success, without investment or a PR campaign.

“We don’t have the gimmicks that other bars go for,” he said.

“We don’t even have a cocktail menu. When people come into the bar, we ask them what flavours they’re into and what alcohol they like and make a bespoke cocktail for them.

“Before they come in, we have to ask them how many people are in their party, because the bar is so small and only seats 28.”

North Belfast man Michael McIlroy, whose New York bar Attaboy, has just been named Best Bar in North America

North Belfast man Michael McIlroy, whose New York bar Attaboy, has just been named Best Bar in North America

From Pina Coladas to Penicillin — an Attaboy signature drink consisting of whiskey, ginger, honey and lemon juice — the bar’s cocktails are renowned and the small team, including mixologist Haley Traub, lauded by critics and contemporaries.

Next year Attaboy will celebrate its 10th anniversary and McIlroy and Ross have high hopes of expanding their business with more bars, in the States and further afield.

McIlroy said the award came at a great time for Attaboy and its team, after a challenging period due to the Covid pandemic.

And he said that they were all still in shock at winning America’s Best Bar.

“We were reading down the list from 50 to 40, to 30 and I started to wonder if we’d made it at all,” said McIlroy.

“To find out we’d come in first place then was a shock, but we’re incredibly happy and humbled.

“A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into opening Attaboy and building it up to the bar that it is today.”

Explaining why Attaboy had come first, Mark Sansom, content director for North America’s 50 Best Bars, said: “Despite its modest size, it has had an outsized influence on how we drink, not only in New York and the USA, but globally as well.”


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