What is the speakeasy culture?
The latest trend in global bar culture harks back to the Prohibition era in the USA and conjures up images of faded sofas, low lighting, ambiguous handshakes, finger wave curls, jazz and teacups covertly filled with gin. But how and why did the speakeasy culture come about and what is it about these hard-to-find, hard-to-get-into establishments that draws us back to a time when serving and drinking alcohol was once illegal?
The history of the speakeasy
Between 1920 and 1933 (and longer in certain locations), the consumption, sale, production, importation and even the transportation of alcohol was banned across the whole of the US during what became known as the ‘Prohibition’ era. The movement was started by pietistic Protestant activists who wanted to rid society of the violence fuelled by alcoholism that was rife at the time as well as the political corruption that was so often born in the local saloons. While from outside, the law appeared to have had some success (and indeed, it is said that alcohol consumption during that time halved), a subculture began to take hold behind closed doors. The ‘speakeasy’ – a type of illegal drinking den – was born.
What is a speakeasy?
During Prohibition, secret drinking bars began to pop up. Given that alcohol was illegal, the owners of these establishments had to go to extravagant lengths not to get caught and raided by the police. Traditionally, these hidden drinking dens therefore had no signage. Instead, a special knock and password would often be put in place. There was also a general understanding amongst those who frequented these illegals bars that it was imperative to watch what you were saying about the place at all times, i.e. to ‘speak easy’ about it. Once inside, you’d find a plethora of rough spirits (well-made spirits were so hard to get hold of). To disguise the harsh flavours, fruit juices and other mixers were added to these spirits, giving rise to some innovative cocktails, many of which became famous and are still made in bars around the world today.
While for the most part, speakeasies disappeared after Prohibition ended and though serving alcohol is no longer illegal, since 2000, there has been a trend to move away from brightly lit, modern bars packed with people, towards a more exclusive, cosy, retro retreat. These days, modern versions of speakeasies can be found in almost every major city worldwide.
Iconic speakeasy classics to try:
Here are some cocktail recipes from the Prohibition era that have stood the test of time. The names may already be familiar to you.
The Highball – Choose your own brown spirit, such as Hennessy Cognac and add a splash of ginger ale to your liking. A cheeky twist of lime freshens the whole thing up a bit. Serve in a highball glass with lots of ice.
The Sidecar – Blend Hennessy Fine de Cognac with Cointreau, lemon juice and shake vigorously with ice, garnish with a twist of orange and decorate the glass rim with brown sugar. See here for the Clos19 recipe.
The Old Fashioned – Use Glemorangie 18-year-old whisky in this classic, old-fashioned recipe which also requires Angostura bitters, brown sugar, soda water with cocktail cherries and orange zest to garnish
The Perfect Manhattan – This recipe uses Uigedail Argbeg Whisky with Bourbon and two types of vermouth, stirred well with ice and strained with a dash of orange bitters and a lemon twist to garnish.
The Gimlet – Add a splash of sugar syrup and fresh lime juice to Belvedere citrus vodka and shake with ice, then pour and garnish with a sprig of rosemary. Stunning, yet simple. Here’s the video recipe.
Cheers to all that! But do it quietly and responsibly…