The Speakeasy: Secret Passages, Drag Shows and Booze

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.

America Walks into a Bar: Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops by Christine Sismondo

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!

Moving on…

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!

Cheers!

_______________________________

The Southside

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

_______________________________

Imbibe Magazine

The Mob Museum

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)

Britannica/Speakeasy

Wikipedia/Speakeasy

The Underbar

Giatti’s Speakeasy

There’s a Blue Gin in Town: The Empress 1908

The Empress 1908 gin‘s growing popularity has it pouring into cocktails far beyond the Empress Hotel in Victoria BC it was named after. And, of course, it even has its own storefront at the Victoria International Airport.

Last week, I saw it listed at a fancy bistro and at a smoked meats restaurant in the Pacific Northwest.

What makes a micro-distilled, small-batch gin stand out from crowded liquor shelves?
Here’s a hint:
How do you make your cocktail the color of an evening sky, sapphires, or the Caribbean Ocean, without adding Curacao or artificial color? Easy. This new gin from Canada is BLUE (dabba dee dabba dah). Right out of the bottle.

The Research

I first read about the Empress 1908 gin in several online articles and, having never seen a gin pour deep blue out of a bottle before, I was extremely curious. So I flew to Victoria, Canada, and headed to the Empress Hotel at the Inner Harbour. Standing in their lobby, I was oddly craving potato chips. Hmmm.

One flight up the lobby stairs took me to Q Bar, with its floor-to-ceiling arched dark wood design and stylized art pieces featuring Queen Victoria. The vibe was so relaxing, chill and classy. If I lived nearby, I would be here just all the time!

Then again, it may have been relaxing and chill because it was noon on a Tuesday. :^ )

The Taste Test

I grabbed a bar stool and noted the Empress 1908 gin bottles proudly displayed at one end.

I chatted up the barkeep about it. He gave me a sample, and the gin flowed blue right out of the bottle. So…it’s not juniper-forward or fragrant like a London Dry. I mean, the juniper is there, and there’s also citrus (grapefruit?), plus some other botanicals, but there’s also something…earthy? What IS that??

I looked it up on my phone. The “eight carefully selected botanicals”, includes grapefruit – not surprised – plus coriander, cinnamon, rose petal and ginger. Mystery ingredient number one is Empress black tea.

I’ve heard of infusing gin with tea, but not having tea as an ingredient in the actual making of a gin. Seeing the teacup in their promo pic, just to the right of the bottle, should’ve clued me in. I just assumed it had to do with bored, sad British housewives hiding their alcoholism by secretly sipping gin from a proper teacup, or something <shrug>.

Photo courtesy of the 1908 Empress Gin website

Mystery ingredient number two is the butterfly pea flower, which creates the gin’s all-natural blue color and also adds to that earthy, woody flavor.

So here’s the cool part. How do you make the gin go from deep blue shot to violet/purple martini and then to pink gin and tonic?
Acidity.

The Demo

The barkeep put on a show for me.
The gin poured out deep blue (sigh). When it hit the citrus slice, the gin mingled with its acidity and turned purple/violet as it trickled to the bottom of the glass. Tonic was added, lightening the color to a lavender pink. So gorgeous.

The Conclusion

So about that taste test…

If there’s such a thing as color therapy, it was working on me because just looking at the shades of the Empress 1908 gin lulled me into a blissful haze. As for its flavor…frankly, as a lover of gin in all its levels of botanical offerings, my mind wasn’t blown. The earthiness from the tea and flowers was interesting – and a bit confusing – but the sipping experience, as a whole, was too subtle and a bit lacking. Then again, it’s a matter of personal taste.

It’s now available at stores in the United States. If I ever get a bottle (because the blue hue is just so lovely) I may experiment with mixing it with other gins, just to add the aromatics and pungency that are a baseline for all straight-sipping and classic cocktail gins I enjoy.

Cheers!

—————————————————————-
Credits:
Photos by Alexandria Julaton
https://www.liquor.com/recipes/color-changing-martini/
https://foodgressing.com/q1908-cocktail-empress-1908-gin/
https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/butterfly-pea-flower-benefits
https://www.bonappetit.com/drinks/non-alcoholic/article/butterfly-pea-flower-color-changing-tea
https://www.empressgin.com

A Ballsy Tale: The Monkey Gland Cocktail

Weeks ago, I wandered over to my favorite watering hole – a bar that served mainly classic cocktails from the 1920s and 30s. Many of my faves were there, along with others I’ve never heard of, but planned to try. Including this one…the Monkey Gland!

I mean, with a name like that, how could you NOT want to taste one, am I right?? I had a feeling it had one helluva backstory.

The Backstory

Dr. Serge Voronoff believed cells from the younger beasts would re-invigorate the older animals. He transplanted organs, tissue and bones from younger horses and sheep into older ones. That was followed with experiments on transplanting monkey thyroid glands into humans, to help them overcome thyroid deficiencies.

The idea being that monkeys shared enough biological similarities to humans, as required for transplants.

Next, Dr. Voronoff focused on the impact of testicles. According to his book “Life: a Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life” (available on Amazon.com), the sex gland “stimulates cerebral activity as well as muscular energy” as it “pours into the stream of the blood a species of vital fluid which restores the energy of all the cells, and spreads happiness.”

He started transplanting the testicles of executed criminals into millionaires. However, there were more rich men who wanted the testicles than there were dead criminals to supply them.

So he used monkey testicle tissue instead. The testicle grafting became so popular that a special reserve was set up in Africa just for capturing and holding monkeys for gland transfers.

And now… the cocktail!

Disclaimer:
No monkey parts were harmed in the making of this beverage.

The Monkey Gland
Courtesy of the Spruce Eats

1 dash absinthe
2 ounces gin
1 ounce freshly squeezed orange juice
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons grenadine, to taste
Orange slice, or flamed orange peel, for garnish

Swirl a dash of absinthe in a chilled cocktail glass to coat it, then discard any excess liqueur.

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice cubes, pour the gin, orange juice, and grenadine.

Shake well.

Strain into the prepared glass.

Garnish with an orange slice or a flamed orange peel. Serve and enjoy. Cheers!

———————————————-

Sources:

https://www.thespruceeats.com/monkey-gland-cocktail-recipe-759322

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serge_Voronoff

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-true-story-of-dr-voronoffs-plan-to-use-monkey-testicles-to-make-us-immortal

Photos by pexels

Small Craft Spirits: Yaletown Distilling Company

yt6

 

Not that long ago, Yaletown in Vancouver BC was pretty seedy. After telling him I planned to spend a day wandering over there, one of my street-savvy cousins rattled off areas to avoid, due to drug activity, prostitution, etc.

“Just stay away from Main.”
“And stay out of East Hastings.”
“Careful, that place is drug central and a sketchy area.”

I wandered around Yaletown on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon, and saw no disreputable activity anywhere. Turns out, this once sketchy area is now a charmingly gentrified little berg with loads of hip, trendy perks – restaurants and bars (with patios!), cafes, shops, galleries, plus upscale apartments and condos.

 

yt12 

Not surprisingly, a handcrafted distillery is part of that mix. Seeing their premium spirits creation machines from the sidewalk through huge glass windows, I just had to wander in and pay my respects to Yaletown Distilling Company.

 

yt10

 

Camera-shy Craig, the distillery manager, hooked me up with a couple of shots in their tasting room. The refreshing mandarin-infused vodka had good flavor definition. And the honey-infused vodka was luscious, smooth, and not at all syrupy. It was so good, I ordered another shot.

 

yt9

yt6a

 

Tariq, the distiller, was checking on equipment before a company field trip was scheduled this evening for a tour of one of the world’s top 10 distillery bars, according to The Spirits Business magazine. Number one rule before the tour begins: Don’t touch anything!

 

yt13

yt4

 

The beauty of small craft spirits distilleries is they can focus on quality, not quantity.
For now.
With rapid growth driven my millenials’ preference for craft liquor made by small local distilleries, the new challenge is maintaining authenticity while mass producing to meet increasing demand.

 

yt2

yt5

 

Unfortunately, Yaletown Distillery only sells their wares within the Canadian borders. But it’s just one more reason to keep coming to this amazing city – to discover and experience cool neighborhoods, with its delights, surprises, and liquid bliss. Cheers, guys!

 

yt3