Get it right, and you’ve got a bar that oozes secretive allure. Get it wrong, and you’ll be staring at an empty room. So what’s the key to the speakeasy? Armed with the secret password, Tom Sandham muscles his way past the hype to find out…
There’s a bar in the UK that, to my mind at least, is a genuine speakeasy. By that, I mean you won’t find any information about it anywhere. It’s hidden beneath another bar and has no signage. You can only access it through the cellar door of the bar above and there’s fingerprint identification on the door. It serves great drinks. And, most speakeasy of all, there’s no licence.
I’m not going to spill any beans on it since the point is that this bar is not for public consumption. And the bar owner behind the venue possibly cares about earning the status of ‘speakeasy’ as much as he does about the plight of the Laysan Albatross (it’s worth checking them out). But I reckon the opening paragraph covers most of the speakeasy definition – all I really need to say of course is: there’s no licence.
This bar is a rare example and there are countless pretenders out there who fall short while still applying the term ‘speakeasy’ to their business. Indeed, it’s being harnessed with reckless abandon in today’s bar topography and consequently the definition is perhaps becoming distorted.
Google the term ‘speakeasy’ and you’ll catch my drift. There’s the Speak Easy Bar & Café in Epping, Essex, or the Speakeasy Bar at Queen’s University, Belfast; a Speakeasy pub in Wembley and an entire brand built around the concept in the mainstream Prohibition bars. From a gay speakeasy in Glasgow to the ‘New York speakeasy-style’ pool hall in Manchester, they’re everywhere, and at the rate we’re going, it won’t be long before we don’t actually know what a speakeasy bar was or even what it represents as a style today.
In terms of historical context, the speakeasy was, simply put, a bar that operated during Prohibition in America and served alcohol illegally. At their peak, there were tens of thousands of these establishments across the States, with crime bosses and police being bribed to keep them in operation. The term ‘speakeasy’ should need no explanation since the entire existence of these bars relied on people keeping schtum. Preserving a low profile meant theses places would occasionally be low lit, emit a reasonably low volume and, due to the era, boast a mix of brick den or art deco design. They also made drinks with what were undoubtedly putrid homemade spirits, although no-one seems to be adopting this particular facet in the modern-day experience.
The historical context has helped the concept to flourish in America in recent times, particularly as you could even find a site that existed as a genuine speakeasy in the 1920s. With the design already in place, it’s not overly challenging to open a bar that adheres to the speakeasy values. Aside from being illegal, bar owners can at least keep an opening on the QT, erect nothing in the way of signage, and use the existing brick basements with a bit of sympathetic rendering to maintain the decor.
As a result, a city like New York is rich in speakeasy-style bars today.
THE REAL DEAL
Please Don’t Tell (PDT) on St Mark’s Place in the East Village has been considered such a bar since patrons enter through the Crif Dogs hotdog shop’s phone booth. Naturally, its manager Jim Meehan has a view: ‘I never considered PDT a speakeasy, and resisted the tag numerous times, before finally conceding that we could be considered a speakeasy, albeit a modern one.
‘A speakeasy was famous for many things, but great drinks wasn’t one of them, and that’s a big turn-off for me. Most speakeasies operate with a code of conduct for the guests: nothing fascist, just common courtesy. I would love to see that code of conduct spread to other bars and restaurants where anything goes.’
One of the few surviving original speakeasies is Bill’s Gay Nineties on 57 East 54th Street, which dates back to 1924. There are photos of prizefighters adorning the walls and it does a mean steak and a decent drink, but while it feels genuinely historic, it’s more akin to a museum for tourists.
The king of all of them though is Milk & Honey New York, the brainchild of Sasha Petraske, who should take all the plaudits for the modern speakeasy revolution.
When asked about his views on Prohibition bars at the recent Cognac Summit, Petraske suggested that, in reality, the concept can’t exist today. Such a statement might appear incongruous when reviewing his own success, but his point was that you wouldn’t run an unlicensed establishment today.
He suggested that during Prohibition the speakeasy was, in essence, licensed – it was simply a license monitored by criminals and corrupt police. And he also pointed out that romanticising the crime is a mistake; it’s preferable to have a legit licensing board.
After all that, we’re left with a question: what is a speakeasy? If it’s just a classic cocktail bar then fair enough; anyone can lay claim to it as long as they commit to a decent drinks menu. But the idea of a secret location still seems fairly crucial.
Back in the UK, the owner of the establishment mentioned in the opening paragraph preferred to remain anonymous, but for him this aspect of secrecy remained key.
‘If you can be found on Google, you’re not a speakeasy, and if people can speak easily when they leave your place – you’re not a speakeasy.
‘I hate all this new-bar “feel of a speakeasy” crap – if you mean you’re a bit of a shithole decked out with cheap makeshift furniture selling suspect quality drinks, that not many people know about, then fair enough. But if you’re a legit bar, you’re probably not a speakeasy.’
This issue of legality possibly frames the argument that a speakeasy won’t really exist in the current bar environment. But there are elements of the 1920s bar that have been successfully incorporated into today’s scene, particularly in London. If we start by substituting ‘illegal and hidden’ with ‘hard to find’ or ‘hard to get into’, then we have a similarity in private members’ clubs.
THE RULES OF THE GAME
A common example of how the speakeasy has evolved might be somewhere like Quo Vadis. During my early visits to Quo, this secrecy was paramount, to protect the privacy of the members. More importantly, the membership was gained by completing an essay-style form, thus exposing anyone who wasn’t quite right.
This runs in line with another of the speakeasy mantras: the proprietor is king.
Michael Butt who, with bar consultancy Soulshakers, has set up countless bars including Quo Vadis, believes this is a crucial element to the speakeasy:
‘When setting up Quo we took references to the concept and what had succeeded before us with Sasha,’ says Butt. ‘But the ideas are not just from the speakeasy era, they are from the speakeasy backwards through the golden age of cocktails.’
In that time the proprietor was king and thanks to the rules at Milk & Honey New York, Petraske is able to ensure that the bar is run the way he expects it to be, without actually having to tell customers about said rules as they walk through the door.
If you want to ban someone you pay for their drinks that evening and inform them that the membership has been refunded. ‘In Quo we pre-empted this with our joining policy so the owners knew members shared the expectations of the owners up front.
‘Second on the speakeasy list is that it’s not easy to get into, which the Quo application process ensures. People want to feel that they’re lucky to be there. For me the third reason Quo is a speakeasy is because, it aims to make better drinks, and the best bars during prohibition took on the challenge of making decent drinks.’
These are three worthy descriptors that apply to Milk & Honey London, the sister to the Milk of New York, where Jon Cowley served the drinks up until recently.
‘What Milk & Honey has managed to do is combine all the positive elements of the speakeasy with a wide customer base,’ says Cowley. ‘The theatre and anticipation in trying to find the drinking den is still there – we have no signage and very few know what is behind the innocuous black doors. But what is important is that M&H also knows what it is. It has never been advertised or marketed. It is a phenomenon that has grown due to word-of-mouth reputation from serving great drinks in a great atmosphere consistently over many years.’
That’s great for Cowley and Milk, but for every success story there are plenty of failures. Trying to make noise without making a sound is a big ask with all the competition out there right now. Equally, you have to be careful that you don’t set a pretentious precedent and end up with entirely the wrong crowd.
And then there are places like Bart’s, the ‘worst kept secret on Sloane Square’, apparently. It’s the worst something for sure, largely due to the narcissistic patrons, and if this is what ‘exclusive’ and ‘hidden’ delivers then start abandoning your speakeasy plans right now.
In Paris, private (and illegal) parties are held in the Catacombs, harking back more to illegal raves perhaps, but in London there’s a growing phenomenon of inviting guests to your flat, charging them a members fee and letting them drink all night. In each case the invitation is literally word of mouth, which ensures the right mix of people.
But then again, if you open a bar, slap a speakeasy tag on it and employ a door monkey who simply lets his mates in, what exactly are you achieving? After all, a bar is supposed to be fun, and while there’s certainly a time and a place for a measured and tranquil experience, there are plenty of bars offering that already, and it’s questionable whether we need many more.
Better, then, to take the quality service and drinks that made the speakeasy king and start applying them to your bar, whatever the concept.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BARBARY
Prohibition threw up some rude beverages, and we’re not talking Pom Pom or Fluffy Ruffles. Having recently attended the Cognac Summit in France where a key topic of conversation was Prohibition drinks, I can certainly say that the Sidecar is still going strong. But of all the Prohibition drinks, surely the Barbary Coast is one to reference as a pure example of what these people were suffering in 1920s America: it attempts to blend gin with whisky.
25ml crème de cacao
25ml double cream
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass