Love them, hate them, or can't really be bothered with them, there are more and more "speakeasies" opening everywhere, and this is the history behind them.
The Prohibition period of the 1920/30s came about with the intention that in reducing the consumption of alcohol by prohibiting it, the number of drinks manufacturers would largely decrease. Oh how wrong those little people were! Like telling a small child / a boy / a BarChick not to do something, prohibition had the opposite effect and everyone went crazy for liquor and clandestine bars to drink it in.
The Prohibition era bred gangsters. Al Capone was the ultimate G: during the Prohibition period, he made his money from bootlegging booze (the name comes from a type of boat used to ship rum during the prohibition) and prostitution. He was a formidable dude and came out with quotes like: “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone”.
Even the mayor of New York at the time, Johnny Walker, has a special back booth in the wine cellar of New York’s most famous speakeasy of the time, the “21 Club”.
Speakeasies were the baby boom of the Prohibition era, mid-decade there was supposedly around 100,000 in New York City alone. These were usually upper class, illegal bars which had entertainment and often dress codes that sold prohibited alcohol.
“Blind Pigs” were similar hangouts but dive bars and usually only sold beer and liquor. This is where the big boys made their cash, selling bootlegged booze to the many speakeasies and Blind Pigs, this business earned someone like Al Capone some serious dollar. They were usually disguised with a shop “front” and you entered through a sliding panel or trap door.
The door in the 21 Club was made to look like solid concrete and weighed over 2 tonnes, to open it you had to insert an 18” piece of wire into one of the cracks. They usually had secret tunnels for you to escape from if a warning came that the cops were on to it! As it still is today, drinking was taken seriously and the boys meant business.
The Prohibition was imposed to reduce the number of beer drinkers enjoying themselves too much, but what actually happened was the number of hard-core liquor drinkers went up! Of course this makes perfect sense, if you’re gonna make a big effort to be illegal, drink some booze, have fun and feel the effects then liquor was the one. Beer also takes up more space, both in storage and production.
While Prohibition came to its end in 1933 the drinking scene had changed forever, drinkers had grown quite fond of these 'speakeasies', as the other alternative was rolling around the dirty streets drinking from a flagon, and so the trend stayed, growing even more popular in the last few years.
Here are some bars around the world that do the speakeasies of old proud:
THE NIGHTJAR, LONDON Stumble in off Old Street roundabout to a den of decadence and seriously good cocktails. 129 City Road, London, EC1V 1JB / +44 20 7253 4101
PURL, LONDON Look out for the black railings and make it a Sunday when there are Piano sessions. Expect smokin’ cocktails that taste rad. 50 Blandford St, Marylebone, London, W1U 7HX / +44 20 7935 0835
ECC, LONDON French boys and exquisite cocktails, good beats and naughty fun! You’ll find it unexpectedly in the middle of China town. 13A Gerard Street, London, W1D 5PS / +44 207 434 3559
CANDELARIA, PARIS First glance it’s only a hole-in-the-wall taqueria, the real action is through the unmarked door to the clandestine bar, like a stone walled cave with sheepskin rugs and killer cocktails. 52 rue de Saintonge, 75003, Paris, France / +33 1 42 74 41 28
LE 29, PARIS Buzz for entry to this elegant boudoir-esque bar that doesn’t have a cocktail menu, just ask Greg and he’ll whip up whatever you want. 29 rue Vineuse, 75016 Paris / + 33 6 18 40 89 93
PDT, NYC Speak the password through a phone box in this hot dog hole-in-the-wall shop and you're granted entry into one of the world's best bars... 113 Saint Marks Place at 1st Avenue, New York, NY, USA, 10009 / +1 (212) 614-0386
LITTLE BRANCH, NYC No sign, down a rickety staircase, tiny with a little jazz trio squeezed into the corner... 22 7th Ave South at Leroy Street, New York, NY, USA, 10014 / +1 (212) 929-4360
ANGEL’S SHARE, NYC Sneak past unsuspecting diners in an East Village Japanese restaurant and through the wooden door in the back into this teensy speakeasy, where Japanese bartenders meticulously create Asian influenced cocktails, like the smoky Del Sasser with bacon-infused bourbon and plum liqueur. The perfectionism doesn't end at the menu: a strict code of conduct applies. No standing, no groups over four and no shouting, ensuring a chilled vibe. It gets very busy, so head here early, order sashimi from the restaurant and settle in with your date at a cosy window seat for some East Village people watching. Cocktails $15-17US. 2nd Floor, 8 Stuyvesant St, New York 10003 / +1 (212) 777-5415
BAXTER INN, SYDNEY Sydney's most anticipated new bar, the Baxter Inn, opened its doors at the end of 2011. A candlelit, hidden basement bar, retro American saloon style, with vintage pin-ball machines and frames of black and white boxing photos – like a sports bar without the sport. Impress your date without having to watch the cricket... score! Well executed classic cocktails, rare & unique wines and beers, and a whisky selection so huge that dapper bow-tied barmen have to climb a ladder, library style, to reach them all. No food, but pretzels as bar snacks. Cocktails at $17AU, Mon-Sat 4pm-1am. 152-156 Clarence Street, Sydney, 2000
THE UNION BAR / THE BUREAU, COPENHAGEN Look for the big black door at no.16 and don’t act too smug just yet, the hard part isn’t over, you’ve still gotta get past big Lewis on the door and you may be lucky enough to get access to the even more secretive hidden bar upstairs, The Bureau. Store Strandstræde 16, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1255. Look for the black door. Ring the golden bell. Nearest metro stop is Kgs. Nytorv / +45 4119 6976
BAR MUTIS, BARCELONA For starter these bad boys are pretty pricey, but don’t let that put you off, this bar is worth it. For starters it is the only place that a disco ball actually looks classy! This flat-turned-sound-proofed 1920s-style bar is a cocktail haven, hidden off the busy Ramblas in a residential apartment block. 438 Avenida Diagonal (next door to Bar Mut), Barcelona, Spain / +34 932 174 338
VESPER, MIAMI Walk out of the back of the Shelborne hotel and head through the kitchens to this slick James Bond inspired speakeasy. It's the perfect place to come hide from the beach parties and crowds - get yourself a proper cocktail without a queue, and realign before heading back out to the nonstop madness that is Miami. Shelborne South Beach, 1801 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33139, USA / +1 305 341 1500
28 HONG KONG BAR, SINGAPORE This is a speakeasy that is described as an oasis for some of the city’s serial cocktail drinkers. The owner makes his own spirits in the back room and has created half the menu himself. It’s said to draw an eclectic crowd of students, models and businessmen. Mon-Thu 5.30pm-1am, Fri-Sat 5.30pm-3am. 28 Hong Kong Street, 059667, Singapore / +65 6533 2001