Picture the scene – a dark bar, low lights, jazz twiddling its way across the packed room, a smell of booze and tobacco hangs in the air…
A buzz of fun and excitement from the crowd, laughter cutting the room, drinks being knocked back at a steady rate, tables moved to the sides to make room for the dancing couples, the worries of a country in trouble being lost to alcohol, good times and the party atmosphere. We have all read the stories and many of us have seen Boardwalk Empire so we know straight away that scene is from a 1920’s Speakeasy.
The bar industry like all things goes through trends and whilst the rest of the world seems to be having a whole lot of fun reliving the bright, outlandish, slightly painful 80’s the bar industry has been looking a bit further back and focusing on the dark, low-key 20’s America (not 20’s Europe which was having quiet a jolly time thank you very much with the ‘Golden Twenties’ in full effect ).
There is no doubt that the 20’s Prohibition era was a hugely important time for the liquor and bar industry and I am all for celebrating it, I just think that the way ‘Speakeasies’ are doing this currently is missing the mark.
How the Speakeasy came to pass
There are few drinks writers in the world at the moment who have the academic background to their work to explain this era better than David Wondrich and he makes some very interesting points in his writings on the subject.
Firstly Prohibition was the end result of many years of campaigning against alcohol across the country but not necessarily outlawing it, in actual fact the majority of support came from the Upper Classes who didn’t want to ban alcohol they just wanted to ban alcohol from the working classes. By the time the Volstead Act came into force in 1920 the Upper Class had stocked up their cellars and were well prepared for the dark years ahead.
Speakeasies, were then, by their very necessity aimed at the working class man (and woman who for the first time were allowed to drink in the company of men – well it wasn’t a time to be fussy was it!) and full of the rough and ready characters of the neighbourhood. Jazz became the sound and in a lot of ways the badge of the Speakeasy scene, in the 80’s saying you liked Acid House was code for saying you liked to pop smiley faced pills, in the 20’s Jazz and liquor had the same association.
Of course Speakeasies were also rather hampered by their alcohol selection and quality, spirits were generally made on premise and in nicer areas the real stuff was often cut with water and sometimes with a lot worse (this was largely to make the booze still affordable for the working class folk as well as making more money of course) and as for decent cocktails, forget it. In fact the ability for bartenders to make good drinks was so restricted that many, including the great Harry Craddock, left the US during this period for the UK, France and the rest of Europe.
So let’s recap here a Speakeasy was a rough and ready drinking den full of working class guys and gals wanting to have fun, dance and get drunk without having to spend a fortune, oh and not forgetting to do all of this without anyone knowing you were doing it. Sure in later years once the rich peoples cellars had run dry and their posh restaurants had gone bust they started frequenting their own upper class Speakeasies or joining the riff-raff in theirs but the essence of these bars was always the earlier form.
Modern Speakeasies getting it wrong
Now here is my problem. Today’s Speakeasy bars are generally about as far away as it is possible to get from this. Now I understand that nowhere is going to survive by selling cut liquor in chipped glasses with no mixers but where has the Speakeasy soul gone.
Go back up to the first paragraph (taking out the tobacco part of course), now honestly does that seem like any modern day Speakeasy you have been to? No of course not. It starts out fine with the dark and the jazz but as soon as the feel and atmosphere of the place is included it is lost. Modern Speakeasies all seem to be so exclusive and trendy they have lost the very thing they are supposed to be celebrating. The 1920’s weren’t about the quality of the drinks or the skill of the bartenders it was about being naughty, drinking and having fun – sticking two fingers up at the elitist classes.
Oh and bartenders from this period were just that, bartenders. Not mixologists, not drink chefs, not service industry professionals etc but good old fashioned bartenders who concentrated on serving drinks and ensuring people had a great time. Look at pictures of Speakeasies and you’ll find jolly looking guys surrounded by smiling faces (all be it jolly guys who probably kept a shotgun under the bar just in case!).
However that also seems to have been lost – Where in the history books does it mention that a Speakeasy bartender must ‘give across a general feeling of being superior to his customers and produce drinks so serious smiling after the first sip is frowned upon’?
I think it is fair to say that the criticism levelled at these bars that they can’t be a Speakeasy if they tell anyone they exist is a little unfair, they do after all have to make a buck. What I don’t like however is the seeming elitism a lot of them appear to employ. Hosts who seem very concerned with your attire as you enter as if totting up if you can afford a round of drinks. Working Class venues remember???
Many of London’s ‘Speakeasies’ such as Experimental Cocktail Club, Nightjar are great venues, serving great drinks and although they are sometimes more than a little up their own arses for my taste, that is not my problem with them. My problem with them, as you may have guessed by now, is that they are not fucking Speakeasies! Being small, dark and hard to find does not a Speakeasy make.
I believe the closest we have to Speakeasies in today’s culture is the Dive bar. A venue where everyone is welcome, drinks are affordable and dancing and enjoyment are positively encouraged. The rest of you be upfront, admit what you are, you are good at it so why hide behind a false tag.
You are upmarket, expensive, serious drinking establishments – that sounds good to a whole lot of people, stop being scared to admit it.