Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | March 7, 2011

Understanding the Speakeasy

Originally posted at

During Prohibition, Americans were forced to seek out drinks at speakeasies, the hidden bars that continued to operate outside the reach of the law. Since federal Prohibition agents were always on the hunt for illegal bars to close down, patrons were urged to “speak easy” and keep their voices low when enjoying illicit spirits.

Fast forward about 80 years. Most American cities have at least one bar that specializes in making great classic cocktails. Moreover, as the craft cocktail scene has emerged, many of the most prominent bars have styled themselves after Prohibition-era speakeasies. Some go so far as to have hidden entrances (PDT in New York City’s door is through a phone booth in a hot dog shop) or require a new password every day to gain entry, like Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco. The styles and customs of craft cocktail bars can be a bit intimidating, so here are a few pointers to successfully navigating a modern speakeasy.

  1. Trust the bartender. The menu may be big and include a lot of cocktails with spirits, bitters and syrups that you’ve never heard of. But trust me; many of them have been around 100 years or more, and they probably wouldn’t have a place on the menu if they weren’t worthy. No one is trying to steer you wrong, so have faith and drink something new to you.
  2. Sit at the bar. Modern mixologists (a term for bartender that has been around since the 1860s) are incredible to watch. If you want to understand why your drink tastes so good or why it takes a while to make, sit at the bar and watch the process of building balanced cocktails.
  3. Go on a journey. A craft bartender can make you drinks you’ve never heard of before. Talk to them about what you like and they’re bound to open your eyes to cocktail possibilities you didn’t even know existed.
  4. Be patient. Each drink is made to order and ingredients are poured with precision to ensure that every time that drink is made, it tastes the same. Using jiggers isn’t a sign of an amateur bartender, but of someone seeking to make you the best drink possible.
  5. Dress the part. No, you don’t have to wear a bowtie, vest and have rolled sleeves that reveal a smattering of sailor tattoos. But most good cocktail bars expect their customers to look respectable. Dress as if you were going to a decent restaurant and you should be fine.
  6. Know the costs. Depending on where you are, cocktails are likely to run between $8-15. You’re paying for quality, so you’re getting your money’s worth.  Tip 18-20% for good service and more if you had drinks comped.
  7. Don’t order vodka. You may love Ketel One on the rocks or a Grey Goose and soda, but you’re missing the point if that’s what you order at a craft cocktail bar. Remember to trust the bartender and try something new—you won’t regret it.

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