Contemporary speakeasy bars exist somewhere in a very fine balance between obscurity and popularity, counter-culture and hipster bullshit. They need to be secret enough to be cool and maintain their aura of exclusivity, yet not so secret that nobody knows about them; quaint enough to preserve the spirit of the Roaring ’20s they inherently carry, yet not the kind of quaint that morphs into a pompous imitation of itself; classy and abundant in bespoke, fancy cocktails, but not lynch customers who want to have a straight drink, or God forbid, beer.
A fine balance indeed that many speakeasies have failed to maintain. But those that do still hold a romantic appeal few drinking establishments can ever rival. Like portals in time, speakeasies take us to a remarkable era during which drinking, with all the spontaneous collisions of cultures, music, and human faiths that occurred on its pretext, was truly a luxury rather than a gimmick.
Origin of Speakeasies
Speakeasies were born out of the Prohibition which took effect on January 17, 1920. Ranging from gloomy basements to fancy clubs with jazz bands, they all had something in common – being illegal, hence their name: speak + easy, as in speaking quietly about them, sometimes inside them, and the unique password each one required to grant entry.
They quickly became points of major interest to almost everyone, from otherwise law-abiding citizens to mobsters, looking to capitalize on the drought of alcohol and people’s thirst for it. Celebrities like Ernest Hemingway were regulars. At the peak of the Prohibition period, there were over 30,000 speakeasies in New York alone. It was during those times when Al Capone came into notoriety, controlling and supplying the staggering 10,000 speakeasies in the late 1920s.
Speakeasies and the Counter-Culture of the Roaring 20s
With speakeasies, mobsters not only defied the legal rules, but the social ones as well, creating underground wonderlands where other socially oppressed and rejected people could feel equal and free, together, under the influence. Speakeasies didn’t just supply alcohol, but a decadent shelter where counter-culture thrived, jazz music boomed, and men and women of different races and social classes could revel together, no longer segregated.
Speakeasies turned out to be a major cultural phenomenon which shaped this time period into the Roaring ’20s so many people reminisce about to this day.
Speakeasies and The Rise of Jazz
Even though jazz music existed before the Prohibition, it was in speakeasies where it found its first real home. Some mobsters, the Capone brothers being the most prominent ones, insisted on hiring only black musicians as they considered them to be in the same boat as the oppressed Italian immigrants. Black musicians from the South started migrating north to cities like Chicago in search of a platform and larger audiences. They sure found both in the underground world of speakeasies, along with powerful bosses in the face of the gangsters who hired and supported them.
Jazz and its edgy novelty which broke away from the perceived musical norms and became the perfect soundtrack to an era, defined by the refusal to conform. Jazz and alcohol flowed and interflowed in full force, pouring out into records with explicit titles like Bessie Smith’s “Me and my Gin” and Louis Armstrong’s “Knocking’ a Jug.”
Jazz permeated the underground music scene and quickly spilled over into the mainstream one. Record sales soared and many new musicians sprouted. Two jazz currents formed – the New Orleans one, where musicians performed together as an ensemble, and the Chicago one, where free-form, improvisational jazz was king.
“Black and Tan”: Speakeasies and Racial Integration
At first, black jazz musicians were hired by mobsters to play in speakeasies for exclusively white audiences, and even that was somewhat revolutionary for those times. But this first step toward integration was soon followed by a leap in the form of “black and tan” clubs where black and white partied as equals.
Duke Ellington’s iconic “Black and Tan Fantasy” is a tribute precisely to those multi-racial speakeasies and the fantasy of racial unity which they helped turn into reality.
Before the Prohibition, women were supposed to sit at home while men drank together in bars. But speakeasies and their all-around air of defiance unleashed women’s need for freedom that had long been simmering quietly. They started going to the illicit bars where they danced, drank, smoked, and did anything else society had previously forbidden them from.
This is when the historic “flapper” movement started, led by jazz-singing women with bobbed hair, short skirts, and a signature bravado that shielded them from the conservative public’s condemnation.
Flappers and the Prohibition altogether have inspired many iconic film characters.
Interracial Dating and Social Unity
The actual term dating is also considered to date back to speakeasies, but more importantly, so is interracial dating, to Harlem in particular. Before the Prohibition, men and women were never out together under the influence, and interracial dating was a hard taboo.
But the shared sense of rebellion at the heart of every speakeasy also bred a sense of unity. People of different genders, races, and social classes could mingle without fearing the public scorn. It may sound as no big deal nowadays, but a century ago, those temporary escapes from society’s restraints were the first tastes of real freedom.
Speakeasies are credited for starting, and later on reviving, one of the most universal and lasting trends in culture – cocktail drinking, and respectively cocktail making, or mixology. However, this highly regarded bartending niche had more humble beginnings than you might imagine.
A lot, if not most speakeasies served very low-quality, poorly distilled alcohol, moonshine, “bathtub” gin, DIY homemade spirits, and industrial alcohol. In order to hide their bad taste, speakeasies introduced simple mixers and flavorings like coke, ginger ale, juice, mint, sugar, lemon, and others, creating mixed drinks which came to be known as cocktails.
Speakeasies in the Contemporary Age
Speakeasies were reborn in 1999 in New York with the opening of Milk & Honey. In times, dominated by loud, gaudy nightclubs, speakeasies tapped into a shared need for a different kind of night-out experience – cozy, intimate atmosphere, mysteriously subdued lighting, live blues and jazz and music playlists that are played at normal volumes and envelop you in sweet nostalgia, pleasant bartenders, and some quality cocktails.
In some speakeasies, magicians mingle with the crowd and perform card tricks, I’ve also been to one which had a flaming dumpster just next to the back entrance where people could gather around and drink in the cold, just for the sake of it.
This kind of little touches make the speakeasy experience all-the-more movie-esque and quaint – something which many people, especially those with a romantic bone, can’t resist.
Speakeasies in the Age of Social Media
Self-promotion and social media altogether go against the very essence of secret bars, which poses a challenge. It’s hard for speakeasies to compete with regular bars without any marketing. Some sidestep it by having social influencers do the marketing for them, while others rely on word-to-mouth. In that sense, speakeasies are like an intentionally messy haircut – they’re meant to be noticed and be cool, but it should never look like that was the idea.
To compensate, some speakeasies are overly priced and pretentious, while others turn into nothing but empty shells that make for nice Instagram stories. Either way, the original essence of speakeasies is often extremely diluted.
The mob’s resourcefulness during the Prohibition era left a permanent stamp on history, soaked not only with alcohol, but all the beautiful things that ensued from it…
True as this may be in many cases, when done right, speakeasies are like classic cocktails – get the balance right and don’t water them down, and you get an evergreen that will never go out of style.
The mob’s resourcefulness during the Prohibition era left a permanent stamp on history, soaked not only with alcohol, but all the beautiful things that ensued from it – revelries, music, dancing, unity, and love. A truly unique culture.