Even though it was called Prohibition, it’s pretty impossible for the government to stop something completely.  So there was, in fact, a fair bit of alcohol to be had, if you knew where to look or who to ask. And no, you didn’t necessarily need to be in the backwoods running from the law to find it.

Since this isn’t history class, I won’t bore you with all the details of Prohibition.  Here are a few interesting facts:

1. Not all alcohol was banned. Some was approved for “religious use”, which I’m guessing means a few extra people might’ve found Jesus during those years.

2. Ever notice that in some craft cocktail bars your drink is served in a small bottle with a cork? That’s a nod at Prohibition, when some liquor was approved for “medicinal use”. Whiskey could still find its way into people’s glasses, all nice and legal, since the doctor said. (I recently had a cocktail called “Doctor’s Orders”, which was just what the doctor ordered, thankyouverymuch).

3. Bathtub gin was mostly what it sounds like. Gin is a neutral grain spirit (i.e., no flavor) that is infused with herbs and botanicals (juniper berries as a rule, and now, many add other local ingredients). But not everyone making hooch during Prohibition really knew what they were doing, so buying wood alcohol and putting twigs and berries in it makes gin, right?  Wrong. It could make you blind or kill you. Not cool.

So how did you get your drink on if you weren’t making it yourself or you hadn’t suddenly found religion? A speakeasy was your next-best choice. Ever watch Boardwalk Empire? I think some speakeasies were like that, but they weren’t all quite that cool.  The term “speakeasy” is of slightly cloudy origins (much like the liquor, I’m sure). Some say it started in a town outside Pittsburgh, others attribute it to an Irish phrase that translated to “speak softly shop”. A lower-class version also started popping up. Since it wasn’t legal to sell liquor, enterprising folks sold tickets to see attractions like “blind pigs” and it just so happened that your ticket came with a glass of hooch.  Pretty savvy, eh?

As with most things, everything that is old is new again (please god, no more legwarmers, once was quite enough!). In cities all across the country, speakeasies have started popping up again. During the 80 or so years since Prohibition ended, we’ve gotten fancy technology : finding the bar behind the kitchen or down a incorrectly marked staircase is usually done by text. While I was in Denver for the American Craft Distillers Association conference, I was treated to a trip behind the bookcase at Williams & Graham by Gable Erenzo of Hudson Whiskey.  I have to say, there’s something about having a drink in a place like that that’s just way cooler than your average bar.  Even the food is better. (Ok, so maybe that was the end of the night gin cocktails remembering the late night grub, after drinking whiskey all night with a bunch of distillers – whatever, no judging).

Most of the major cities have at least one speakeasy, if not more.  San Diego is home to several, Noble Experiment (another name for Prohibition) and one named, well, Prohibition. Since I can’t be everywhere at once, I’ll let the fine folks at fill you in on your city:

New York City

Washington, DC

Everywhere else: The Best Speakeasies in America

No matter which modern-day speakeasy you choose, I can safely say you’ll have a great time – if of course, you can find the front door.  Cheers!

Article by Jeanne Runkle

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