Real Speak: Why is our cocktail scene fascinated with the “speakeasy”?

Volstead's Emporium // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Volstead’s Emporium // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

The club is swinging. Duke Ellington leads a raucous rag. Flappers kick up their heels. Champagne is flowing and the Feds are none the wiser. This is the speakeasy of our imaginations.

Now it’s 2016 and Thomas has just been punched in the face. People are stealing stuff from his living room and doing cocaine in his bathroom. The police are here, again, because drinkers are shouting on his front lawn at 4am. Thomas will close his operation soon, and this time for good—he’s not making any money, it’s not worth all the hassle. This is a speakeasy in reality.

Somewhere in between those two worlds, eyes appear in the slat of a steel door in Uptown. Behind them is a licensed, though unadvertised, drinking establishment. In the basement, a phone booth opens into a secret room. On the other side, behind a velvet curtain, a mirror opens into the wall revealing a waitress with an old fashioned. This is Volstead’s Emporium. It’s a “speakeasy” and it’s a conundrum.

The craft cocktail movement has infused our drinking culture with nostalgia for Prohibition. The golden age of cocktails that preceded the great ignoble experiment is a guiding light for many of the best bar programs today. And along with the drinks, the look of Prohibition has been revived as well. New bars are attempting—to various degrees and levels of seriousness—to emulate the atmosphere of a speakeasy.

A portrait of Andrew Volstead // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

A portrait of Andrew Volstead // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

This ‘20s revival began in New York City, where speakeasies first entered the realm of American mythology. The legend of places like Please Don’t Tell—a bar in the back of a hot dog shop, accessible only by a secret door in a telephone booth—spread like wildfire through word of mouth.

But NYC was ready for this trend. Drinking there has always involved a measure of exclusivity. The Twin Cities, on the other hand, couldn’t jump into the speakeasy trend right away. Without the luxury of millions of people near their doorsteps, local bars couldn’t afford such aloofness and secrecy right away.

So the speakeasy trend migrated west at a patient clip. Small elements of the ‘20s aesthetic began trickling in to our local drinking scene. It began innocently enough with bars in basements (Parlour), ones with no signage or initial advertising (Marvel Bar), with plush seating in a cozy space (Prohibition), with the bespoke period setting (The Commodore) and the jazz to match (Vieux Carré). And from the Cities it filtered out to Eagan (The Volstead House), White Bear Lake (The Alchemist) and Rochester (The Doggery).

Let’s be clear—none these bars are true speakeasies, if for the sole reason that they are all licensed to serve liquor. But beyond that, the reemergence of the speakeasy aesthetic in modern drinking is objectively strange. Wherefore this renewed interested in partying like it’s 1929?

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

It’s strange because after nearly a century, Prohibition has faded into the realm of pure mythology. It’s been idealized. We’ve comported all the imagined glitz and glamour into 2016, ignoring everything that made drinking in that period terrible—segregation, alcohol poisoning, and violent crime, to name a few. Most speakeasies in the 1920s were not glamourous affairs like the Cotton Club—they were in flop houses and tenement buildings, run by gangsters vending dodgy liquor. It’s strange that our hospitality industry has become enamored with one of the least hospitable times to be drinking in America.

Illegal speakeasies didn’t go away after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. In fact, private and unlicensed drinking clubs are alive and well in Minnesota in 2016. Some are small consortiums of neighbors who pool together money for a stash of booze in one of their garages. Others take reservations for dinner and drinks, like 320 Northeast, the private dining club shut down by the city of Minneapolis earlier this year.

Next page: (Mis)adventures at an honest to goodness speakeasy

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About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.

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