Prohibition? More like innovation!
written by James Walters
Prohibition. Easily one of the United States of America’s strangest cultural decisions in the beginnings of the 20th century, though steeped in its history since colonial times. It seems odd now that people would come together to ban one of the oldest traditions that mankind has – making potent drinks with powerful flavours. But that happened in 1920 and continued until 1933. For thirteen years the production, transportation, importation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was banned. While the ownership and consumption of alcohol wasn’t made illegal in Federal law, many states and local authorities introduced their own laws, some banning possession outright. As such, drinking went underground, and the rise of the speakeasy began.
The term speakeasy was used to describe a premise where people could go to get a drink during the prohibition. Nowadays it refers to retro bars recreating the glamour, style and secrecy of the period – incorporating 1920s to 30s decor, the fashion trends for the staff and more adventurous patrons, and in some cases the hidden entrances and secret knocks. Combining these elements with modern cocktails and flair, speakeasy goers not only get an incredibly fun night out, but also the satisfaction that maybe they know something others don’t, and possibly feel like they’re being naughty…which for some reason makes it even better.
Speakeasies have popped up across the globe, from London to Melbourne, New York to Paris. Each have their own style and claim to fame, but the concept is the same – make it hidden, make it cool, and have fun. One of my favourites in London is the Experimental Cocktail Club. With a non-descript door just off a street in Chinatown, you need to knock and ask if it is the ECC to get in, or book in advance. The range available can leave you feeling a little overwhelmed, as you want to try them all, but need to pick one to start with. This is one of those cases where choice is awesome.
Heading to the ‘city of love?’ Then you should definitely hit up the Moonshiner in the 11th Arrondissement of Paris. To get to this little gem I had to head into the back of a bustling pizzeria, and get in the freezer. Once you’re in the hidden bar, you’ll be served cocktails in vintage flasks, and can sample their daily-different punch, or go all out and get a super-strength Smokey Island.
Going to the other side of the world to catch some of the southern hemisphere’s summer sun? If you’re in Melbourne, you should check out the Bar Ampere. This speakeasy is made up to look like what someone in the 1920s would have thought the future would look like. With a solid selection of cocktails to choose from, there is definitely something to suit your tastes. The gin and tonic they made me was one of the best I’d ever had. Living the dream!
I’d be hard pressed to talk about speakeasies without mentioning New York. During the prohibition, it’s estimated the Big Apple had between 30,000 to 100,000 secret bars! These days though, it’s all fair practice to serve the booze – but you may as well have some fun with it, right? That’s the thoughts behind the Bathtub Gin. Harking back to the days of false store fronts, to get to this gin joint I needed to pull out a trick door in the back of a coffee shop. The inside is lavishly decorated and looks the part of what it means to be a speakeasy. To add to the mischief, there’s a copper bath in the centre, and if the mood takes you to have a dip, you’re more than welcome, while you whet your alcoholic appetite.
These are but four of the speakeasies I’ve managed to find in my travels, but the unique flavour and style of each really caught my imagination. One of the things that bound them all together was a quality that only comes with knowledge, innovation and using the best spirits to hand, something that separates them from the speakeasies of the Prohibition era.
Edinburgh is also home to a couple of the world’s best speakeasies…so if you’re in the area and looking for a fun night out, or a cosy date, go find them.
James is an international traveller, who has managed to scour the world for new and interesting experiences, having stumbled into some of his favourite places, people and roles quite by accident.
This open approach to life has taken James across the Pacific, the United States, East Asia, and Europe. He has worked in bars in France, worked on high-end television programmes in the UK, reviewed music festivals and interviewed bands in New Zealand, and driven through America.
It’s also allowed him to look at life as always an opportunity, and embrace what may come his way. And James has encountered more than a few drinks along the way, allowing him to compare and contrast a plethora of tastes and experiences the world over.