BARTENDERS AND DRINKS WRITERS seem to love the romance of the Prohibition era. The secret meetings, the cocktails it inspired and the all-round mysterious vibe attached to running – and drinking in – bars that were not supposed to exist.
With their unmarked doors, phone booths and rickety basement steps, speakeasy-themed bars have been carved out of basements, apartments, storerooms and neighbouring shops all over the world.
Here’s a quick historical recap on Prohibition: in short, it was the ban on sale and production of alcohol.
It happened all over the world at various times but the most famous – and the one referenced by many speakeasies – was in the US from 1920-1933.
The Anti-Saloon League claimed that alcohol was damaging American society and religious groups believed it went against god’s will though, ironically, some vineyards were allowed to go on producing altar wine.
Gangsters such as Al Capone made huge amounts of money dealing in illicit alcohol and, by 1933, it was repealed because it wasn’t working.
Still, it remains an important part of alcohol’s colourful history and, for those with an interest in their profession, an important part of being a bartender.
PDT, 113 St Mark’s Place, New York
This is the daddy of speakeasy-themed bars and it’s impossible to write about it without mentioning the entrance – through a phone box in the neighbouring Crif Dogs hotdog shop. The affable Jim Meehan started the concept in 2007 and the novel entrance – which we suspect many punters are as excited about as the drinks – came about because of licensing laws. If the bar had its own street entrance, Meehan would’ve needed a separate licence, but since Crif had one and all that separated the spaces was a wall – hey presto, knock a hole in it. So it really has all the hallmarks of a speakeasy.
Nightjar, 129 City Road, London
The third best bar in the world, according to the World’s 50 Best Bars 2012 poll. You have to descend the stairs to the basement. From the street, you have absolutely no idea what lies beneath – think 20s jazz bands, bee-yoo-tiful cocktails made by one Marian Beke and a plethora of handsome folk to boot. There are plenty of quiet corners for clandestine get-togethers, but if you want to get up and dance to live music, let the rhythm guide you.
Happiness Forgets, 8-9 Hoxton Square, London
This is a no-frills hangout with bare brick walls – or ‘high end-cocktails in a low-rent basement’, as the bar describes itself. There’s no standing room but it’s not really the kind of place you’d want to stand around in. For me, this is a place to come and sit at the bar. The backbar is absolutely heaving with bottles and the ’tenders sport old-school aprons, waistcoats and some, of course, go for bow ties.
It doesn’t like the ‘speakeasy’ tag but it’s almost invisible in an otherwise vibrant square.