Issue 30

Speaking Easy

Speaking Easy

Prior to Prohibition it was said the cocktail was king among drinks, more consumed than either wine or beer and considered a flavored rival to water. It was so popular, in fact, that it required an amendment to the Constitution to ban the sale of it. To this day we still wonder, and, reputedly, still feel the effects of the dark decade that we refer to as Prohibition. Dark as those days must have been, though, and in spite of a constitutional amendment, did we stop drinking? No, a nation of drinkers found a way to keep drinking, and they found it through the speakeasies.

The name itself, speakeasy, comes from how you talked about them. You “spoke easy” about the bar because, if you didn’t, several things would happen: the first would be you would get banned, and likely blacklisted from all the other ones in the area, the second would be that the proverbial “Johnny Law” would find out, shut down the place, make some arrests, confiscate (and probably drink some later) all the alcohol, and the third is that, given they were mob run establishments, you’d take some damage to your person to make sure you wouldn’t ruin their business enterprise and money making. They weren’t safe places, and they weren’t places respectable people went.

When Prohibition happened we saw the cream of the American bartenders emigrate to Europe, and those that didn’t traded their bar regalia to become operators of the soda fountains at pharmacies. Incidentally, it was during this time that we began to see things such as artificial flavors get created as the chemists at pharmacies used their skills and inventories to obtain the flavors they wanted cheaper. It was likely that the former bartenders, craftsmen of their trades, lent their palates to the chemists in experimentation to get the flavors right. The 1920s were, of course, all about making money.

It was to the soda fountains that many of the former bar patrons went once Prohibition went into full swing. It was not to the speakeasy bars. Those that went to the speakeasy were those looking to get drunk, to find a fix, to find that girl he could take home and not worry about the next day, and to find a party. He was looking for the flapper, he was looking for the music and the dance, and he didn’t care where he would get it. When we say that Prohibition marked the beginning of the death of the cocktail, it didn’t happen because it was made illegal, it happened because the speakeasy changed what it meant to go out for a drink.

It’s almost an irony that today some of the best places to grab a mixed drink are those places that find inspiration in the concept of the speakeasy. This inspiration only goes as far as the hidden entrance – that bookcase that swings open, or that phone booth in a hot dog store. Or it might be what looks like a service door in the side alley of a hotel, or a painting of a door knob that actually is a door knob. It might be a place with no name and just an address. It could be a green light above a door, two lit horses in a window, or three flickering candles. There, though, the speakeasy ends, and the craft begins. Nearly a century later, we’ve romanticized the idea of the speakeasy, but those who operate these modern day ones look to those bartenders who didn’t practice their craft illegally.

It’s an irony, when you think about it. The speakeasies of Prohibition were probably one of the big reasons why we consider the 67 years (1933 – 2000) as the dark ages of the cocktail. They were places that didn’t care about quality or about a good product. They cared only about money, and how to make as much of it as possible while spending as little as possible to do it. Now, the modern speakeasy has reinvented the concept, it is a place where the bartender is a crafts(wo)man, and where quality, product and experience are some of the most important aspects of the business.

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