There is a romanticized image of Prohibition era speakeasies in the modern world. There are many bars that call themselves “speakeasies” in most every major city in the United States and even overseas, where speakeasies were not found in the 1920s. Hidden doors and passwords lead to a hidden bar, where cocktails are served and jazz music is being played. These bars base their image upon the fallacy that Prohibition cocktails in speakeasies created the modern cocktail culture.
The fact is, during Prohibition, speakeasies were simply illegal bars, serving illegal spirits. These spirits were often very poorly made spirits supplied from illegal sources. They were often made without cutting the heads and contained wood alcohol that would, over time as it was drunk, slowly poison the drinker. “Cocktails” were made to hide the bad flavors of these poorly made spirits. The larger cities, near a source of smuggled liquor, could get decent whiskey, brandy, rum and gin, but they were the exception to the rule. Towns located away from these centers of smuggling were often purchasing spirits made by the local moonshiner or legal spirits that had been cut with grain spirits and re-bottled to increase the amount of whiskey that could be sold on the black market.
Prohibition cocktail culture did not start in these speakeasies. Cocktail culture began in the bars and restaurants in places like London and Paris, where many American bartenders went when Prohibition forced them out of their jobs. These bartenders, and the native bartenders who worked with them, created many of the drinks we think of today as ‘Prohibition cocktails”. These bartenders also had access to spirits little known in the United States. They used these spirits to create cocktail recipes. These recipes would travel back to the United States with the Americans who visited these foreign cities. Some of the better quality speakeasies in places like New York, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco, may have had the necessary spirits to make these cocktails, but most other places simply did not have access to the necessary spirits.
New York was a state in which you would find such establishments. The state government refused to spend any state money enforcing Prohibition. This meant that only Federal agents were doing so and speakeasies had less of a chance of being shut down. It also meant that good whiskey, brandy or rum had a better chance of being smuggled in from Canada or Europe. States that had very strict enforcement, such as Pennsylvania, had less access to good spirits even though they had port cities with access to the ships waiting outside the legal limit of the United States Coast Guard.
The very nature of the speakeasy also meant that they were plagued with other problems. Gambling, prostitution and other vices were sometimes found there. A customer being robbed or physically assaulted was not uncommon. Were there jazz bands playing at speakeasies? Most likely not in most of them. Music would draw attention to the bar, and that defeated the purpose of being a bar hidden from the law.
The next time you visit a modern “speakeasy”, remember that what you are experiencing had very little to do with the reality of Prohibition speakeasies. They are a romanticized versions created by Hollywood and modern bar owners to increase their business. If you want to go someplace to experience the re-birth of cocktail culture, go to London or Paris and order a Boulevardier or Last Word cocktail and remember, these are the places American bartenders fled to at the start of Prohibition. These are the true origins of most Prohibition era cocktails, not speakeasies.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller