The speakeasy came into prominence in the U.S. during the Prohibition era – from 1920-1933 in most parts of the country. (Some state’s prohibition laws extended beyond 1933.). During the prohibition era, laws were enacted that made it illegal to manufacture, transport, and sell alcoholic beverages throughout the country.
A Brief History of The Speakeasy
The term ‘speakeasy’ actually came about before the prohibition era. In the U.S., it was used as early as the 1880’s to refer to unlicensed saloons. The term referred to ‘speaking quietly’ in public about such establishments. But, some historical references to the phrase go further back to early 19th Century England. In this earlier time period, the term was used to signify a ‘smuggler’s house’.
During the U.S. prohibition, there were well-known speakeasies – like New York’s 21 Club that catered to the ‘high brow’ set. But, there was a wide variety of establishments for the different classes. Some establishments that served illegal alcohol to the lower classes of the time could also be referred to a ‘blind pig’ or ‘blind tiger’. These establishments, which also evolved before the prohibition era, generally involved selling a ticket to the patron to see an ‘attraction’, and they were then given a free alcoholic beverage. This allowed such establishments to circumvent the law about selling unlicensed alcohol.
The key to a speakeasies success was in its secrets. Often hidden behind the guise of a legitimate business or home, entrance to such businesses required some form of ‘code word’ or specific knock on a nondescript door down a dark alley.
Prior to prohibition, the alcoholic drinks were usually served as a pure pour, allowing the drinker to enjoy the raw taste of the liquor. But, during prohibition, the illegally produced, ‘bootleg’ liquor would vary greatly in quality. Because of that, the bartenders began to mask the taste of the alcohol with other non-alcoholic beverages and juices… hence the development of the modern cocktail.
Because of the U.S.’s prohibition laws, we have inherited several developments of that time — from the mixed drink to organized crime, and – believe it or now – NASCAR! But, the speakeasy largely faded from society after the repeal of the prohibition laws.
The Speakeasy Reborn
The Speakeasy trend was reborn in larger American cities, like New York City. New Yorkers disagree on which was first – but, the following are one of the firsts – PDT (Please Don’t Tell), Angel’s Share, and Milk & Honey.
The rebirth of this type of establishment was not for any legal reasons. It had become fashionable since the late 80’s for the trendy to go to entertainment spots that were largely ‘unknown’ to the general audience. Although not a ‘private club’, it had a similar vibe. In other words, if the bar or restaurant had a sign outside of it, it was too commercial.
So, the natural extension of this trend was to create hidden watering holes that only a small clique knew about. It gives its patrons a sense of being ‘in the know’. The better ‘speakeasy’ doesn’t do traditional advertising. Any website or social media presence does not usually include address info. But, somehow, all of the ‘right people’ are talking about it.
And, if you are one of the lucky patrons to a modern speakeasy, you may be one of just 15-20 drinking in the establishment. You will probably know the bartender’s name and he or she will know your preferred cocktail.
Generally speaking, the modern speakeasy is not focused on selling a volume of alcohol. How can they, when they might be in a small space hidden behind a Japanese restaurant or above a dry cleaner?
But, what they do offer is a very special drinking environment, one where you can discuss with your bartender and have a long conversation with your drinking partner without being shouted over by another patron trying to get a drink or competing with loud music from the sound system.
It can feel like your own private club… and who wouldn’t want that?
And the modern speakeasy has expanded out of the large, coastal cities. You might be surprised how widespread they have become. You never know, there might be one right next door to you, behind that green, unmarked door?!
If you have a particularly special speakeasy experience that you are a liberty to share, please do so in the comments below. We would love to hear from you.