Speakeasies today are nothing like the OG hidden bars and hustle of the 1920s. Back then, a Speakeasy was a super-secret bar that served booze illegally, usually hidden inside some other kind of establishment – like a grocery store or unmarked building. You had to know somebody, who knew somebody, who knew where it was. And who knew the secret password. Then hope a police raid won’t haul your deviant ass to jail.
Some trendy bars use the Speakeasy’s secretive, shady character as part of an overall theme, then go rogue from there. More on this later. Personally, I’m all for a really cool, authentic bar experience, but to a point – I will NOT drink booze made and served in a bathtub.
There’s no shortage of articles and posts online about Speakeasies, their history, Prohibition, yadda yadda. For those of you who’ve been living in a cave, or are new to the cocktail scene (same thing), here’s a VERY brief history.
During the Prohibition era in the United States, when the sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal, the Speakeasy – also known as a blind pig or blind tiger (Google it!) – became popular. Some say the word ‘Speakeasy’ came from 19th century England’s and Ireland’s ‘speak-softly shops’, in which customers spoke in discreet whispers to avoid detection.
And if you’d like to know more, The Mob Museum in Las Vegas has a section dedicated to Prohibition, bootleggers and Speakeasies. Enjoy!
The Ol’ Hide-a-Bar
Some new bar opened nearby that claimed to be a Speakeasy, so I had to get over there and see if it met the Speakeasy bar criteria. It was hidden inside another establishment – an Italian restaurant. No shady, well-dressed, darkly handsome Mafioso-looking gents at a corner table to add to the ambience, to my dismay. Then there was the secret password, which I had to get from the maître d’.
As instructed, I walked through a hallway, where a “secret” door opened to a warehouse. After walking to the other end of the warehouse, I saw the old-timey phone booth in a corner. I spoke the password into the receiver, and then was told where I could find the secret passage. So far it checked all the boxes.
The Speakeasy bar was a cozy lounge with a retro vibe. Old newspaper clippings on the wall about the Prohibition era icons and arrests, artsy posters of cocktails, and very tasty booze.
Also very cool – they can ‘smoke’ any drink on the menu, including my Old Fashioned cocktail! NIIICE!
I gotta say…if you’re here for the ladies, take my advice: Ladies like atmosphere. And Speakeasies have lots of it!
Speakeasy on a Sunday is a Real Drag
Another drinking establishment nearby claimed to be a Speakeasy-THEME bar, and I truly do respect the clarification. Went there on a Sunday afternoon, through the front door, and down to the basement.
It was a cozy dive bar. Hanging around were some gents, mostly ladies, and the Kings and Queens of Drag.
And then the show started! YEAH, baby! Speakeasy Sunday is how I do CHURCH!
Signature cocktail at the 21 Club, a popular Prohibition-era bar. It’s also said to be the favorite drink of notorious Prohibition-era bootlegger, Al Capone.
2 oz. dry gin
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. superfine sugar (or use simple syrup)
8–10 mint leaves
Chilled club soda
Place mint leaves in shaker and gently muddle. Add the gin, lemon juice and sugar, and stir to dissolve. Fill the shaker with large pieces of ice and shake gently—to keep from pulverizing the mint—for about 10 seconds. Double-strain into a highball glass
America Walks into a Bar: Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops
by Christine Sismondo (Photo: 1927 Speakeasy owner Texas Guinan about to step into paddy wagon. Image donated by Corbis)