We all know about the speak-easy, those hidden gems that served as a hiding spot for the strong of heart during the era of Prohibition. Bartenders and barmaids kept Americans well-spirited with illegal hooch and the sounds of jazz during a time when “the man” kept fun under wraps.
Where saloons once stood, new businesses opened and the bar moved underground or behind a mock-store front. Passwords, handshakes and codes granted access to the lively scene. Hotspots were called speakeasies as it was necessary for guests to keep a low-profile upon entrance, keep quiet and “speak easy.” Beer and wine took a back seat to hard liquor which was easier to transport and hide. Women were suddenly allowed to enter as patrons and the cocktail was born when it became necessary to mix alcohol with something to make it more palatable. Lawmakers and temperance movement supporters had hoped Americans would live more simple, moral lives, but with bootlegging, moonshine and the emergence of the speakeasy, alcohol and easy-living spread like wildfire. New York boasted over 100,000 speakeasies, including the original Red Roosterin Harlem. What was once named the Stork Club of Harlem, modeled after a similarly named establishment in midtown, the original Rooster’s one time owner George Edwin Woods kept his clientele list small and exclusive, limiting his list to true Harlem celebrities and some of the communities most beloved members, like Willie Mays and Adam Clayton Powell.
Flash forward to 2011. We are long past the rules and regulations of Prohibition, but the trend is back. The latest fad in bar-gimmicks is the speakeasy. Look no farther than Drinks International’s release of the Top 50 bars in the world with Please Don’t Tell, the East Village’s getaway tucked inside a hotdog shop, coming in at number one. Surrounded by tasteful taxidermy and ultra-friendly staff and sipping on way above average cocktails, you’re welcome to nosh on celebrity-chef inspired hotdogs not available at the attached Crif Dogs. It is a promise that you won’t be disappointed.
There are other speakeasies scattered throughout Manhattan and other US cities and ironically nobody is talking in low whispers when discussing these nooks and crannies. Since we live in the era of social media, many speakeasies no longer rely on a hidden existence but instead keep their clientele on a short list, take only reservations, turn people down selectively or try their best to keep their doors visible to only those “in the know. ” Many bars deliver the cocktail drinker to a completely different atmosphere, usually presenting a peek at what a true speakeasy might have been like. Raine’s Law Room on 17th street looks and feels like the swanky prohibition era apartment of your family lawyer, complete with a kitchen-island bar, and handlebar mustached maitre d. While it is a grand, wonderful feeling to sip on something fizzy and cozy up in a booth like the ones at Raine’s or PDT, it is even more satisfactory knowing well that the group ahead of you was turned down entrance.
It is not merely ultra exclusivity that keeps patrons coming back and seeking out new speakeasies. Many are the home for intricately crafted cocktails at the hands of the most capable mixologists. Take the drink menu at Violet Hour in Chicago for example. Cocktails range from new variations on the Manhattan to unfamiliar concoctions made with tequila, brandy and port. That’s right…a port cocktail. PDT just released their first cocktail book, which ranges in giving advice on stocking a complete bar to cocktail recipes that ebb and flow with the seasons. A few weeks back on my first visit, I sipped on a cocktail that paid homage to the tv show Boardwalk Empire and tasted like saltwater taffy, as well as an autumn inspired cocktail that was made with butternut squash puree. Ah! The decadence.
With the reemergence of the classic cocktail, it is a wonderful thing to see the rejuvenation of a nearly century’s old institution. Celebrating the classics and revitalizing atmospheres that once were lost, is a classic American tradition. Next time you’re headed out for a night of revelry and rabble rousing or if you’re just looking for a one of a kind cocktail, consider your closest speakeasy. Of course, that is assuming you know where to find one.
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