Speakeasying in the Big Apple

Three nights, scoping the best of New York City’s cocktails behind unmarked doors


Speakeasies—illicit or unlicenced establishment dispensing alcohol—peaked after the 18th Amendment took effect in January 1920, prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Photo: AP
Speakeasies—illicit or unlicenced establishment dispensing alcohol—peaked after the 18th Amendment took effect in January 1920, prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Photo: AP

Pssssst!

Out in town for a speakeasy evening, my friend and I glanced towards the sound and looked away.

Pssst, pssst!

The persistence made us look again and the tall, well-built man standing in the doorway of the coffee shop summoned us in with a wink and a nod. “This is what you’re looking for,” he says, asking for a photo ID.

My friend and I looked at each other, shrugged and stepped into a tiny storefront—Stone Street Coffee Company, the board read—and through an unmarked door. It led to a dimly lit bar with booths and tables lining the walls and live music loud enough to give the right retro-bar feel—a Monday special at the Bathtub Gin speakeasy in Chelsea, Manhattan.

Once my eyes adjusted to the low-lit interiors, I delighted in the 1920s decor, glitzy and glamorous with a copper-coloured ceiling, damask wallpaper, fringe-covered lamps, nail head-tucked bar stools and, smack in the centre of the room, a large claw-foot copper bathtub.

A skimpily dressed, friendly hostess sat us down and handed us the drinks menu: It’s big on fine gins and gin-based cocktails. Gin was the predominant drink in the US during Prohibition (1920-1933). With the 18th Amendment to the US constitution specifically prohibiting the sale or manufacture of distilled alcohol, creative manufacturers were forced to use denatured alcohol. By mixing it with various flavourings—juniper berries was a favourite—and allowing the mixture to steep in a tub for several hours or even days (so, ‘Bathtub gin’), the gin became more palatable.

The first drink I ordered was straight from the menu, a Spring Negroni: Langley’s No 8 Gin, strawberry-infused Campari, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur Rinse, stirred and served on the rocks, boozy and delicious. For seconds, I went up to the bar to speak with Darnell Holguin, New York’s Best Bartender 2015 finalist, and asked him to ‘surprise me’. This is very much part of the speakeasy experience, interacting with the bartender who will enquire after your tastes, find out what you are in the mood for, and whip up the perfect drink—or, you can simply ask him to ‘surprise you’.

Done with the drinks and the delicious, if pricey food, and moved by the spirit of the live music and energetic ambience, I hopped into the vintage-style bathtub for a photo-op. I wasn’t the first, it turned out.“Every night, people get drunk and sit in it and take pictures,” said Dave Oz, a co-owner, who plans on displaying a collection of such snapshots on the walls.

Though part of the American scene since at least the 1890s, speakeasies—illicit or unlicensed establishment dispensing alcohol, called so “because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police or neighbours”—peaked after the 18th Amendment took effect in January 1920, prohibiting the sale of alcohol. However, a demand for alcohol fuelled bootlegging and under-the-counter sales. (All of which sounds like present-day Gujarat to me—maybe it’s a business I should consider when I get back!)

At the height of their popularity (1924-1933), speakeasies were usually bars or restaurants—ranging from dives to smart establishments—accessed through personal introductions. Interestingly, while “respectable” women rarely stepped into bars before Prohibition, they were sighted quite commonly at speakeasies. Operators would charge customers to see an attraction (such as an animal) and then serve a “complimentary” alcoholic beverage, thus circumventing the law. The speakeasy went on to become one of the biggest businesses during Prohibition.

Speakeasies largely disappeared after 1933; the term now describes retro-style bars, often gimmicky, frequently out of the way, but always cool. And they serve the best drinks. For all of that, it’s worth toeing the semi-strict dress codes: closed shoes, definitely no sneakers or shorts—in fact, it’s advisable to err on the side of formal, rather than casual.

After Bathtub Gin, we tried out Manhattan Cricket Club (MCC) in Upper West Side. We walked in to a typical bar with a counter and stools. Through a large, well-padded dark green leather door, a smiling hostess guided us up a long, narrow, dimly lit staircase, through another door and into the Manhattan Cricket Club: A softly lit room with posters of cricket legends, beautiful grey wallpaper with black fleur-de-lis, a few squishy couches, candles on each table, muted jazz and a busy bartender at the well-stocked bar. Again the 1920s feel, complete with gracious hostesses in flapper dresses, delicious cocktails and a lounge-like spaciousness.

At MCC, I started the evening with Bonfire of the Calamites, a cocktail with kaffir lime-infused Russian Standard Vodka, lemon, agave and Bonfire Spritz. Delicious and strong and just right for the balmy evening—so much so that I ordered a second while my friend asked for Bend My Elbow, strawberry- and hibiscus-infused No. 3 gin, agave, lemon, grapefruit bitters and club soda. We ordered half a dozen oysters and a selection of three cheeses from the food menu, a total hit of about $150.

So addictive is the classy, carefree vive of the speakeasies that I had to try out a third before my visit drew to an end. Hidden away behind a neon ‘Psychic’ sign in the window and a curtained doorway in the West Village, Employees Only was dubbed one of the 50 Best Bars in America by Food & Wine in 2011. Part-owned by actress Piper Perabo (of Coyote Ugly fame), Employees Only actually does have a resident psychic too!

We arrived at about 10pm to a short line-up. Dinner guests were ushered right in, but for the others, there was a minimum 30-45 minutes’ wait. We amused ourselves watching five dressed-to-party women try to sweet-talk the bouncer for a quick entry when he announced that anyone looking for dessert, too, could go in. That’s us!

A gracious hostess walked us through the noisy and crowded— but beautiful—long bar pulsating with loud 80’s and 90’s music to the more sparsely populated dining area up the few stairs at the back. As the evening progressed , the tables got closer to each other to seat more till there was just about enough space to squeeze by.

My choice of cocktail was a Provençal lavender-infused Plymouth Gin stirred with Herbs de Provence- infused French Vermouth and Cointreau and, boy, was it strong. “We wanted to create a martini-style gin cocktail that would be perfect with raw oysters,” said Dushan Zaric, co-owner. To make the intensely fragrant and aromatic drink, he stirs lavender-infused Hendrick’s gin with a housemade vermouth de Provence, plus a little Cointreau, garnishing simply with an orange twist. It was outstanding and, after three of these, and I was on cloud nine!

We ordered the signature Butterscotch and Mascarpone Cheesecake with Sea Salt and Nut Brittle— it was sinfully decadent and one of the best I’ve ever had. It was light, the consistency of panna cotta and drizzled with a toasty caramel sauce. The perfect ending to our speakeasy tour.

Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.

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