Belfast pubs: The inspiration behind the world’s best bar

CNN  — 

The perfect bar, like the perfect cocktail, is a careful balance of ingredients.

New York’s Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog (30 Water St, New York, NY 10004) – named World’s Best Bar in 2016 – has the mix just right.

“A true great of the modern era,” according to award organizers Drinks International, the Irish bar opened in Manhattan’s financial district in 2013.

Ireland is known as “the land of a thousand welcomes,” but that hospitality has been counterfeited in spit ‘n’ sawdust Irish pubs around the world.

“It’s been pigeon-holed as an inferior product,” explains Jack McGarry, who owns the Dead Rabbit with fellow Northern Irishman Sean Muldoon. But “we’ve traveled all over Ireland and there’s a world-class hospitality.”

CNN traveled with Muldoon and McGarry to their hometown of Belfast for a pub crawl around the drinking spots that inspired them to create the world’s best bar.

MORE: What it’s like to drink in the world’s best bar

Best for pub crawls

“In the heart of Belfast city center, you have six really good bars we’d recommend,” says Muldoon, “All within five minutes’ walk.”

And, adds McGarry, they’re all “very different versions of an Irish pub.” The diversity of pubs in the Cathedral Quarter, they say, is unmatched on the island, north or south.

This compact but rich offering extends to the rest of Northern Ireland: there are mountains, forests, castles, rolling glens and sandy beaches all within an hour’s drive of the city.

If you want to combine Belfast with a trip around the rest of the island, Dublin is just two hours south by train or car.

Best for cocktails

The Merchant Hotel: Mark Velasquez (pictured) and Jack McGarry made a "serious team," says Muldoon.

The Dead Rabbit’s picked up Tales of the Cocktail awards for World’s Best Bar, World’s Best Cocktail Menu and in 2013 McGarry won International Bartender of the Year.

But the men first started collecting gongs when they worked together at Belfast’s five-star Merchant Hotel between 2006 and 2010.

“During our time here, it was the most awarded cocktail bar in the world,” says Muldoon. “That’s what put us on the world stage.”

The Merchant still has the same drinks menu today, although some of the recipes have changed. Muldoon recommends the absinthe-dashed White Zombie.

For the new cocktail bar they’re most impressed by, try Rita’s in the Linen Quarter.

The Merchant Hotel, 16 Skipper St, Belfast BT1 2DZ; +44 28 9023 4888

Rita’s, 44 Franklin St, Belfast BT2 7GE; +44 28 9024 8000

Best for whiskeys

Friend at Hand: Newly opened whiskey shop and museum holding 600 whiskeys.

A golden den of twinkling lights, antique mirrors and pub memorabilia, the Duke of York pub is a Belfast institution and home to the city’s best selection of whiskeys.

A quick stroll down a cobbled alley takes you to owner Willie Jack’s latest venture, The Friend at Hand whiskey shop and museum. It holds 600 Irish whiskeys, 200 of which are for sale.

Muldoon and McGarry are working on a book, a whiskey drinker’s guide to Ireland, and during our tour we’re accosted more than once by people keen to talk about their new whiskey brands.

Willie Jack is working on his own range. He already has plans to launch “the first Belfast gay whiskey” – named Pride, Not Prejudice – in anticipation of Northern Ireland legalizing same-sex marriage.

When creating the Dead Rabbit, Muldoon and McGarry wanted to combine the world-class cocktails they’d created at The Merchant with the relaxed atmosphere of the Duke of York.

“A pub for us is about inclusivity and respect for all,” says Muldoon. “That’s what we love about Irish pubs.”

Duke of York, 7-11 Commercial Court, Belfast BT1 2NB; 028 9024 1062

The Friend at Hand, 36 Hill Street , Belfast BT1 2LB; 02890 329969

Best for beers

“When I’m back in Belfast,” says Muldoon. “I like to go for a good pint of Guinness or a small whiskey.”

Guinness famously doesn’t travel well, so a pint of the black stuff is a must-try on home turf.

But it’s not just about the blockbuster stout. There’s a great range of local craft beers at The Garrick, The John Hewitt (51 Donegall St, Belfast BT1 2FH) and Bittles Bar (70 Upper Church Lane, Belfast BT1 4EL).

Founded in 1870, the traditional three-room layout of the Garrick was a model for the Dead Rabbit’s Taproom, Parlour and Occasional Room.

Its contemporary drinks menu is complimented by a well-executed food offering.

The Garrick is “an old, traditional sort of bar,” says Muldoon, but thanks to owner Colm Oates, “it’s got a young heart driving it.”

The Garrick, 29 Chichester St, Belfast BT1 4JB; +44 28 9032 1984

Best for risk-taking

The Spaniard: "Completely different from anything you will see in Belfast," says Muldoon.

The Spaniard’s tiny downstairs bar is crammed nightly with bright young things, attracted by a lively music playlist and a diverse drinks menu specializing in rums.

It was here 10 years ago that a 17-year-old McGarry approached Muldoon and told him he wanted to work with him at The Merchant.

Downstairs is decked out like a rock bar, while the upstairs is a high-kitsch shrine filled with religious iconography.

Why The Spaniard works, says Muldoon, is that owner Janine Kane takes chances. “She’s not afraid of controversy.”

Kane has another bar around the corner, Muriel’s (12-14 Church Lane, Belfast BT1 4QN). You’ll spot it by the bras hanging from the ceiling.

The Spaniard, 3 Skipper St, Belfast BT1 2DZ; +44 28 9023 2448

Best for a homecoming hug

Kelly's Cellars, run by Lily Mulholland (right), is "one of the oldest bars in Belfast."

Before Dead Rabbit, the world’s most famous Irish-American bar was Cheers, Sam Malone’s fictional Boston bar.

But for Jack McGarry, there really is a bar “where everybody knows your name.”

“When somebody says home to me, I always think of Kelly’s. It’s where my family drink.”

Built in 1720, it’s one of the oldest pubs in the city – the United Irishmen met here to plot the 1798 rebellion against English control – and its white vaulted ceilings, live traditional music and roaring turf fires are a welcome respite from the February evening chill.

Says McGarry: “You’ll see proper, genuine Belfast characters in here, albeit great ones and also rough ones.”

Troublemakers are given short shrift by owner Lily Mulholland, who has run the bar since 2004.

Kelly’s Cellars, 30-32 Bank St, Belfast BT1 1HL; +44 28 9024 6058

Best for country tradition

The "very peaceful, very quiet"  Crown and Shamrock, run by Frankie McAlinden (center).

A short taxi ride out of the city, The Crown and Shamrock is a rare example of an old-style rural Irish pub.

Run by sisters Frankie McAlinden and Rosemary O’Boyle, it’s been in the same family for three generations, but is now on the market for sale.

Simply decorated with wood-paneled walls and net-curtained windows, it sticks to the Irish pub traditions of no background music and no hot food. (Although visitors might be lucky and get free plates of sandwiches and cocktail sausages passed round at the end of the night).

The Wednesday night traditional music sessions are legendary. When we visit, one of the musicians performs a composition in honor of the night’s special guests: “The Dead Rabbit.”

The Crown and Shamrock, 584 Antrim Rd, Newtownabbey BT36 4RF; +44 28 9083 2889

Best for Irish music

Maddens: Set dancing, Irish language groups and live music every night.

Muldoon and McGarry both grew up in Ardoyne, a predominately working class Catholic area of north Belfast.

Maddens is a city center version of “the sort of [neighborhood] bars we grew up in,” explains Muldoon.

“It’s famous for its live music” – there is traditional Irish music every night and while we’re there a violinist starts up at the bar – and it attracts “a very regular, loyal crowd.”

“Any tourists we get is word of mouth,” says owner Brian McMullan.

The buzzer on the door – now a nostalgic quirk – is a relic of the security cages that were once commonplace in Belfast pubs during the sectarian violence of the late 20th century.

Maddens, 74 Berry St, Belfast BT1 1FJ; +44 28 9024 4114

Best for food and drink

Ox: A Michelin-starred tasting menu for £50 ($60) and a three-course lunch for £25 ($30).

Leave your corned beef and cabbage at the door. There’s a growing foodie scene in Belfast and plenty of local produce to sample.

Muldoon and McGarry are fans of Mourne Seafood Bar – with branches in Belfast and the seaside village of Dundrum – and the city is home to two Michelin-starred restaurants.

Belfast native Stephen Toman is head chef at Ox, which hosted a pop-up at Dead Rabbit in 2016. The well-established Deanes – the family of restaurants which includes the Michelin-starred EIPIC – is planning a collaboration with Dead Rabbit later this year.

As for pub snacks, the Duke of York sells traditional bags of dulse (seaweed): an acquired taste.

The most popular pub treat is Tayto cheese and onion crisps – a snack so venerated you’ll find images of Mr Tayto all over Belfast’s airports, greeting weary travelers home.

Ox, 1 Oxford St, Belfast BT1 3LA; +44 28 9031 4121