To me ‘Speakeasy’ bars conjure up images of enigmatic and illicit glamour, with the name itself going back to the whispered access passwords required during the 1920s prohibition era. Having managed to have a rare weekend away sans children a few years ago, we finally had an opportunity to visit a bar styled as a ‘speakeasy’, and went scouring the streets of Barcelona (not the classic setting I am aware!) looking for a dimly lit doorway, with a disguised bouncer awaiting our excited whispers of the secret password.
Unfortunately our expectations were not met. This ‘secret’ bar, only accessible through a fridge door inside the frontage of a pastrami bar, was lit up like the Blackpool illuminations, with a queue of at least twenty tourists waiting for their bit part in Bugsy Malone. After a thirty minute wait, we did eventually get let to a couple of recently vacated seats, but whilst the atmosphere was great, the premise was more of a ‘one cocktail photo opportunity,’ rather than spending a whole evening reliving the 1920s; sipping spirits, smoking cigars and listening to the gravelly tones of the local jazz band.
You cannot deny however, the colourful and almost revolutionary history behind the concept, which started off with the abolition of drinking saloons, which were only open to men. The prohibition era made alcohol a contraband substance-it was available for ‘medicinal’ or ‘religious’ purposes although I am not quite sure how this was governed. Those who liked a tipple would have had to resort to bootleggers or speakeasies, the latter of which taking the revolutionary step of welcoming female patrons. Table service, live music and an emergence of Italian cuisine actually made many of these venues a far cry from the dingy basement establishments that are often associated with the era. On the downside, importation of illegal alcohol led to an explosion in organised crime: it is rumoured that Al Capone made $60 million yearly through supplying and controlling speakeasy establishments in the 1920s.
‘Speakeasy’ bars represented freedom. Young couples were allowed to meet without parental introduction, women did not require chaperones and what went on behind those concealed doors, stayed behind them (with the help of a few bribes exchanging hands on a regular basis). Whilst I am entirely aware that bars and alcohol are a lot more accessible now, and that authenticity may be a little hard to find, I would love to try one or two more ‘Speakeasy’ bars around the world, just to see if there are any that have preserved the enigma of their American origins (yes I know, maybe the States may be the best place to start!). And even if there aren’t, a little bit of imagination in reliving and understanding their exciting past may be the key.
For more historical information about the Speakeasy tradition, visit these interesting articles from The Mob Museum, History.com and BBC News. Advice on visiting Barcelona can be found here and you can find the best things to do in this city in this blog post. Those interested in cocktails will find this article from Vinepair very informative and an extensive range of cocktail recipes can be found at TheBar.com. TheNudge.com brings you a guide to hidden bars in London, with further detailed guides at The Bon Vivant journal and WhereTraveller.com.