What is a Speakeasy Bar?

Anish Patel @ 2022-04-18 09:08:25 -0700

What is a Speakeasy Bar?

Have you ever walked into a bar and suddenly felt like you had walked into the early 1920s? If you have, then you’ve probably been in a speakeasy. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. 

Speakeasies certainly aren’t what they were in the 1920s—illegally-operated bars hidden in plain sight. However, the culture born from the time of speakeasies lives on today. Many bars still prefer to adopt the vintage aesthetic that characterized the illicit “gin joints” of yesteryear. 

What Is a Speakeasy

What a speakeasy was in the roaring twenties is a tad different from the speakeasies you can grab a drink at today. 

However, there are a few things that they both have in common. For one, speakeasies are aesthetically different from modern bars. Their decor is vintage, and you might even feel like you’re having a glass of bubbly in a museum. 

The front and back bars at speakeasies are usually made of wood, with shelves as high as the ceiling displaying an array of bottles. The wallpaper might be paisley. Chandeliers hang down from the tall ceilings, and the walls are covered with mirrors and vintage portraits. The lighting is dim, and the bar will typically serve Prohibition-era cocktails in addition to their main menu. 

These bars are a truly unique experience. Let’s look at how speakeasies came to be. 

Where Do Speakeasys Come From?

The origin of the speakeasy is a result of political changes in America. 

Ironically, it created a subculture that influenced many more political shifts to come, including many that were certainly not intended. 

The Speakeasy in Prohibition

Prohibition went into effect on January 17th, 1920, and lasted thirteen years. During this time, the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol were illegal. The National Prohibition Act appointed agents to enforce the new laws. They gave them guns, vehicles, little to no training, and fairly low pay. 

It was hard on the bar industry. The government forced bars to close down, leaving people suddenly unemployed with no way to feed their families. But many stayed open illegally. These bars were called speakeasies. 

Did they operate without the police knowing about them? Not necessarily. 

Bootleggers and bar owners could buy the silence of law enforcement, who found that the extra income didn’t hurt. Still, bars were raided all the time, their product was poured down the drain, and the police forced the doors to close. However, that usually meant walking a few blocks and opening new doors. 

How the Speakeasy Changed Drinking Culture

New York was flooded with speakeasies, but every major city had them. 

They typically disguised themselves as legal businesses like barbershops or soda shops. Patrons learned about them quietly, by word of mouth. They had no signage and were often found behind an assuming door. 

In order to enter, you needed to know a specific knock, handshake, or password to prove that you were a citizen looking for a stiff drink and not a special agent looking to conduct a raid. 

The Speakeasy Legacy

The underground illicit boozeries initiated an entire subculture that changed the social landscape of America. 

Before Prohibition, only men were permitted in bars. Now that all bars were outlawed, men and women freely mingled, drank, and danced together. It became socially acceptable for women to party. In some speakeasies, segregation was checked at the door. Others became safe spaces for LGBTQ communities to gather and have a good time. 

Women’s rights gathered momentum in speakeasies. Women became more independent, and how they dressed, talked, and acted changed. Courting became a thing of the past, and dating was born from speakeasy cultures. 

Cocktails, house parties, and even America’s love for Italian food started in speakeasies. At the same time, organized crime skyrocketed. Gangsters ran the speakeasy scene; Al Capone reportedly made $60 million a year supplying speakeasies across the country with booze in the roaring twenties. 

Famous Speakeasies

The name speakeasy came from the most important pillar of speakeasy culture: secrecy. These were places that you kept hush-hush and spoke quietly about. You had to be careful where you mentioned the names of the bars. You had to “speak easy” about them. 

Other names for speakeasies were blind pigs, blind tigers, gin joints, hooch joints, and clip joints. 

The Stork Club

The Stork Club was a famous speakeasy in Manhattan on West 58th Street. Run by bootlegger Sherman Billingsley, it remained open between 1929 and 1965. It was raided in 1931, moved to East 52st Street, and then moved once more before closing its doors. 

Billingsley created the club to have a private place to play cards. One of his first customers happened upon it by accident, mistaking it for a funeral home. However, he took to liking the place (hey, it beats a funeral home, right?) and became a regular, often bringing celebrity friends. Eventually, the popularity of the club took off. 

The Cotton Club

Another famous speakeasy is the controversial Cotton Club of Harlem, owned by mobster Owney Madden. 

Its doors stayed open from 1932 to 1940, and for all but the last five of these years, the Cotton Club was a whites-only club that charged an expensive cover charge of two dollars and featured African-American performers that became household names. 

Duke Ellington was one of the original orchestra leaders at The Cotton Club. Billie Holiday, Lena Home, Adelaide Hall, and many more legendary jazz musicians starred here too. 

Langston Hughes was invited as a rare black customer and publicly criticized the club for its segregated atmosphere. He accused The Cotton Club of harming the community of Harlem by bringing white traffic to their neighborhoods after dark.

In June of 1935, after Prohibition had ended, The Cotton Club finally opened its doors to black patrons. 

The Krazy Kat

In Washington D.C., The Krazy Kat was founded in 1919 by Cleon “Throck” Throckmorton in a back alley. 

It was named after a comic strip of the same name and was intended to have an androgynous ring to it. The club invited an LGBTQ clientele and became a hub for progressive thinking about love and sexuality. It also became known for its lively musical performances and the mayhem of the crowds that frequented the joint. 

The Krazy Kat was raided several times and closed in 1928. Today, the site is a gay bar called The Green Lantern that carries the legacy of this ahead-of-its-time bar. 

What Were Speakeasies Like?

Speakeasies were dark and windowless with dim lighting. Some were small, dingy rooms with a bar and a lightbulb. Others were spacious and polished, hosting jazz singers, comics, tap dancers, and big bands. 

There were typically several entrances and exits, some of them less obvious than others. This allowed people to make a quick break for it in case of a raid. Actors, singers, writers, politicians, athletes, and mobsters alike could be found at speakeasies. 

The liquor wasn’t great. It was made illegally, and without regulation, quality suffered. Spirits were often watered down to maximize the profits of bootleggers. Often, they were cut with dangerous chemicals like pure wood alcohol, which killed plenty of people. 

To cover the harsh taste of these spirits and please the new female clientele, bartenders began mixing in fruit juice and other ingredients. This is how cocktails were born. 

In a speakeasy, you were most often drinking out of teacups, coffee mugs, and brown-bagged beer bottles. These vessels were discreet, and discretion was the name of the game at any speakeasy of the 20s. 

Do Speakeasies Still Exist?

Even though alcohol is legal now, the culture and aesthetic of speakeasies live on. 

There are no true speakeasies anymore, as these were illegal bars, but there are many that will give you a taste of what it was like to walk into an illicit drinking den. Some of them still have discreet entrances. 

However, these bars are easy to find, as they market themselves as having an appealing, retro atmosphere that everyone loves. Many of them offer Prohibition-era cocktails like Manhattans or Brandy Alexanders. 

If you want to have an authentic speakeasy experience, order one of these drinks or choose another cocktail that was famous at speakeasies of the roaring twenties, like a Gimlet, Highball, Sidecar, or an Old Fashioned. 

You might just find you’ve been transported back in time for a night. 

Want something that’s a little less speak and more easy? Try our canned Spanish wine cocktail, Rebujito. Served in a can, made with natural ingredients. 


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