turbulent journey | 

Dead Rabbit owner Jack McGarry reveals he 'was an addict and was lost'

Belfast man Jack McGarry, whose pub was twice named best bar in the world, opens up about struggles with alcohol
Jack (right) with his former business partner and co-founder of The Dead Rabbit, Sean Muldoon

Jack (right) with his former business partner and co-founder of The Dead Rabbit, Sean Muldoon

John Toner

Award-winning barman and owner of the ‘best bar in the world’ Jack McGarry has opened up about his descent into alcohol and substance abuse following his success as a bartender.

In 2013, Jack was crowned International Bartender Of The Year, a dream he had chased since childhood. But instead of reaching fulfilment, his life descended into chaos.

After wrestling with his demons and receiving treatment, Jack, who has just become a father for the second time, was able to get his life and career back on track.

With the hospitality industry’s award season in full flow, the Belfast barman told us about the pitfalls of chasing gongs and how he hit “rock bottom” after reaching the top.

He said: “When I won I thought as soon as I stepped off the podium I would be fulfilled; I would get that validation and be complete.

“It quickly became apparent afterwards that was not correct. I was a fantastic bartender, as evidenced by the award, but my love for bartending was gone.

“It stole my passion for it. I didn’t feel full or complete. I just descended into a lost state. Like a dog who really wants a toy but doesn’t know what to do when he gets it.

“I was already an addict before winning the award, but it certainly accelerated that. It was a year or two of slowly deteriorating into the deepest throes of addiction.

“Through the other side of that, when I was hospitalised and came out of hospital I felt liberated. I felt like I had hit rock bottom, but I knew it was in my power to get better and lean into the treatment.

“The therapy helped me to re-find my North Star, my compass, and also rekindled my love of the industry.

“I moved from self-serving motivation to a more external one. I struggled with ‘all of the above’ in terms of substances and would identify fully as an addict. My relationship to everything is coloured by it, I can’t do normal.

“But I have much more self-awareness now and I focus on things that are constructive rather than destructive.”

Jack relaxing with his newborn son, Thomas (right), and toddler Lucas

Jack relaxing with his newborn son, Thomas (right), and toddler Lucas

Jack’s New York City cocktail bar The Dead Rabbit won Best New Cocktail Bar the same year he won International Bartender Of The Year.

The establishment, which he still owns and runs, would go on to be named Best Bar In The World twice and is one of the most admired bars in the US.

Jack, whose second baby boy, Thomas, was born earlier this month, says a humiliating incident he suffered at school gave him the drive to succeed.

“I think, coming from Belfast, I definitely had kind of a chip on my shoulder and felt the need to prove myself, so I think the focus on awards originated there.

“There was one moment in particular which drove my need for validation. I was in third year of grammar school and the teacher read out our exam results from top to bottom.

“I came in dead last and everybody in the class knew that.

“I went to break afterwards and I made a pact with myself that I would never give anybody the opportunity to do that again.

“That made me want to be the best at everything I put my mind to.

“That was the anchor for my obsession with wanting to be the best and win awards.

“Looking back, I’m conflicted; it wasn’t awards that were the problem, it was my relationship to them.

“I think they’re fantastic and good work should be recognised. I do think, though, that there is an external obsession with validation, which I struggled with. I’m obviously proud of what I achieved, but when I think about that time, I just feel a sense of nothingness.

“I was numbing myself with alcohol and chasing a false dream. My overall takeaway from that time is a numbness, but it was part of my journey and part of what has made me who I am.”


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