To-date, the "speakeasy" concept seems to translate to a dark bar, often without a name or any label on the door, that slings stiff drinks, made by bartenders sporting handlebar mustaches and suspenders.
Sure, traditional speakeasies might have incorporated all of these elements, but out of necessity. Bars open during Prohibition had to be hidden and darkened so they wouldn't get shut down, and cocktails had to be made strong because other ingredients weren't readily available. And the handlebar mustaches— well those just so happened to be in style during the early 1900's.
"A speakeasy was a place you drank illegally during a sad time in our history," says Bonanno Concepts beverage director Adam Hodak. "Speakeasies essentially made it acceptable for women to drink at a bar, though, and for that I am glad."
"Personally I associate straight liquor with speakeasies," adds Stuart Jensen, the assistant general manager at Denver's Green Russell. "[Prohibition] really was the death of the cocktail in America. People were more concerned with just getting a drink than with getting a quality cocktail."
"To us, speakeasies are places that thankfully don't need to exist anymore. They were oftentimes beat up, or poorly constructed rooms, that served whatever swill booze they could get a hold of," chimes in Raffi Jergerian, the head barkeep at Fort Collins' cocktail bar Social.
What Hodak, Jensen, and Jergerian are getting at is that the speakeasy in its truest form is extinct. They all avoid the term when describing their establishments, and instead lean toward the designation "craft cocktail bar." They agree while the authentic speakeasy concept can't exist in today's drinking culture (after all, drinking is not illegal anymore), the recreation of old traditions is creating incredible new bar concepts.
"Glorifying the idea of the speakeasy is probably one of the greatest bar concepts," says Jergerian. "Not only is the booze better (in most instances) than it has ever been in history, but the passion of bartending is focused on service, technique and creativity rather that keeping an eye out for the law."
The modern "speakeasy" isn't all smoke and mirrors; it's inventive cocktails, impressive service, and an environment that allows people to branch out from the ordinary.
"Bars are always a bit of an escape from reality; that's one of the reasons why people go in the first place. I think that that feeling is even more pronounced when you walk into a place that is hidden from view and has a completely different atmosphere than what you are expecting," says Jensen. "Sash Petraske, who opened Milk and Honey in New York and ushered in this entire movement, has said that he didn't have a sign on his bar because the landlord had a clause in his lease that prohibited him from adding any signs. It was more necessity than marketing ploy," he adds.
"We do not believe it is the difficulty of finding a watering hole that makes it a [modern] speakeasy, but rather the focus of providing an escape for the working man and woman by whatever means necessary," concludes Jergerian.
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