What Is A Speakeasy Bar? Your Time Machine To The 1920s

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I’m excited to share with you everything you need to know about a speakeasy bar.

My husband and I have visited speakeasies across North Carolina, finding hidden locations and needed passwords to enter.

And we’ve loved trying the many Prohibition-era-inspired cocktails that speakeasies serve.

It’s made me want to learn more about speakeasies. So in this blog post, I’ll share everything there is to know about speakeasies, from their history to how to throw your own speakeasy party.

What Is A Speakeasy Bar
Speakeasies often serve cocktails similar to those served in the Prohibition era.

What Is A Speakeasy Bar?

Picture secret doors, hidden rooms, jazz music, and a mysterious atmosphere.

Born during Prohibition in the 1920s, these hidden bars hold a significant part in America’s history.

A speakeasy was an illegal bar or club that operated during the Prohibition era. These bars were well hidden, usually behind fronts like soda shops or in basements and backrooms of otherwise ‘respectable’ establishments.

Some of the speakeasies I’ve visited were behind bookcases or unmarked doors in popular attractions.

Below is an unmarked door in downtown Raleigh’s popular Morgan Street Food Hall. Almost no one knows what’s behind it.

When Gary and I visited, we were excited to find an inviting speakeasy called Aunty Betty’s Gin & Absinthe Bar.

Unmarked door in Morgan Street Food Hall leading to Aunty Betty's speakeasy in Raleigh, NC
Unmarked door in Morgan Street Food Hall in Raleigh, NC.
Aunty Betty's Speakeasy in Raleigh, NC
Behind the unmarked door is Aunty Betty’s Speakeasy.

Why Are They Called Speakeasies?

The term derives from the patrons’ manner of speech – you were supposed to “speak easy,” or speak quietly, to avoid attracting attention to these illegal venues.

Other Names For A Speakeasy

Throughout history, speakeasies have been known by many names – “blind pigs,” “blind tigers,” or simply “the joint.” These aliases added another layer of secrecy and intrigue to the speakeasy culture.

History Of Speakeasies

Speakeasies emerged in response to the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. They were especially popular in the 1920s, offering a place of pleasure and rebellion against the restrictions of the era.

People marching during the prohibition era.

Connection To Organized Crime

With the law turning a blind eye, speakeasies often became tied to organized crime.

Case in point, Al Capone, the infamous gangster, ran a profitable speakeasy business, furthering his influence and power during the Prohibition era.

Famous Speakeasies

The following are some of the most famous speakeasies throughout history:

🍹The Stork Club

The Stork Club was located in New York City in the 1920s. It was just a block from Carnegie Hall. It attracted society’s elite, including celebrities, wealthy businessmen, and influential political figures.

It was renowned for its high-quality liquor, lavish decor, and being able to rub shoulders with prominent people. It attracted some of the 1920s most dangerous gangsters.

The owner was able to acquire the alcohol by buying up several drugstores. Notable people that frequented the speakeasy include Ethel Merman, Ernest Hemingway, and Orson Welles.

🍹The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge

The Green Mill Speakeasy in Chicago
The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago was a famous speakeasy of Al Capone. Today it’s a thriving bar and music lounge. Photo cred: Green Mill Cocktail Lounge Facebook page.

The Green Mill in Chicago was once a favorite haunt of the notorious gangster Al Capone. The bar remains open today, retaining much of its 1920s charm.

The Green Mill transports its patrons back to the roaring twenties with its vintage decor, dimmed lighting, and a secret room that Capone allegedly used for swift escapes.

Today, it’s renowned for its live jazz performances, echoing its historical roots as a music lounge.

🍹Tommy’s Detroit Bar

Tommy’s Detroit Bar, a historic gem located in Detroit, Michigan, was both a Prohibition-era speakeasy and a station on the Underground Railroad.

It was once a hub for clandestine drinking during the 1920s and also served as a secret pathway for fleeing slaves seeking freedom in Canada.

Today, Tommy’s continues to operate as a bar, welcoming patrons with its old-world charm and deep-rooted history. Visitors can still see remnants of its past, including the hidden tunnels once used by escaping slaves and prohibition bootleggers.

Speakeasy Culture

Entering a speakeasy was like stepping into a different world. Specialty cocktails were the order of the day, often created to mask the taste of poor-quality liquor.

Flappers, the rebellious and fashionable women of the era, were common patrons, adding to the lively atmosphere.

Entertainment ranged from jazz bands to cabaret shows, and dressing in your best attire was the norm.

Flappers in a speakeasy bar
Flappers were fashionable women who visited speakeasy bars.
Jazz pianist in a speakeasy bar
Jazz bands often performed at speakeasies.

Did The Government Poison Alcohol During Prohibition?

The government implemented a policy known as “denaturing” to discourage people from consuming illegal alcohol. Denaturing involved adding harmful chemicals to industrial alcohol, not meant for human consumption but used in manufacturing processes.

The idea was to make the alcohol undrinkable by adding substances like methanol (wood alcohol), acetone, or kerosene.

The denaturing process was not foolproof, and bootleggers and illegal distillers found ways to remove or neutralize the denaturing agents, making the alcohol drinkable.

This led to unintended consequences, including instances of people suffering from poisoning or blindness due to the consumption of improperly denatured alcohol.

My husband loves the book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

It details the many deaths that occurred during prohibition from the government adding harmful chemicals to alcohol.

The Poisoner's Handbook details how the government poisoned alcohol during prohibition.
The Poisoner’s Handbook
Find book on Amazon.

Speakeasies Beyond The 1920s

After Prohibition ended in 1933, the legacy of speakeasies lived on. Many of these illicit bars transitioned into legitimate businesses, carrying with them an air of the clandestine and the allure of the Prohibition era.

Today, the term “speakeasy” often refers to bars and lounges that emulate the ambiance of their 1920s predecessors. They often feature hidden entrances, Prohibition-era decor, and craft cocktails inspired by the period.

Some even uphold the tradition of requiring passwords for entry, like BackStage Lounge in Charlotte, NC.

Read MoreSips & Secrets: The Speakeasy Scene In Charlotte, NC

Gary and Kristen at The BackStage Lounge Speakeasy Bar in Charlotte, NC
Gary & Kristen enjoying a cocktail at the speakeasy
BackStage Lounge in Charlotte, NC.

Speakeasy Culture Today

What Do You Drink At A Speakeasy?

At a speakeasy, you’re likely to encounter a unique cocktail menu inspired by the Prohibition era.

Classic concoctions such as the Sidecar, Bee’s Knees, or a good Old Fashioned might make an appearance, but often with a modern twist.

Many speakeasies also have a good wine and beer selection.

Cocktails from The Green Light Speakeasy in Raleigh, NC
The Green Light Speakeasy in Raleigh, NC served us fantastic cocktails and had a cozy, intimate atmosphere. We found the entrance behind a bookcase in a bar.

Do Speakeasies Serve Food?

While speakeasies were primarily known for their cocktails, many modern speakeasies have expanded their offerings to include food.

These menus often feature small plates or tapas-style dishes designed to complement the drink selection.

Cocktails and food at The Cellar At Duckworth's, a speakeasy in Charlotte, North Carolina
The Cellar at Ducksworth in Charlotte, NC serves wonderful cocktails and has a terrific food menu. This is one of our favorite speakeasies.

How To Dress For A Speakeasy

Checking if the venue has a specific dress code is always a good idea when dressing for a speakeasy.

While some might encourage a more sophisticated or vintage-inspired attire, many modern speakeasies don’t enforce a strict dress code, and patrons can range from casual to dressy.

We found one speakeasy in Charlotte that requires a membership, has a dress code, and requires reservations. So be sure to check out the information on their website before you go.

A girl in speakeasy clothing
Man dressed in speakeasy fashion like the 1920s.

What Is A Speakeasy Vibe?

A “speakeasy vibe” is all about recreating the unique atmosphere of a 1920s Prohibition-era bar. This often includes elements such as dim, moody lighting, vintage or retro decor, jazz or swing music, and a sense of clandestine exclusivity.

The ambiance is usually intimate and sophisticated, with a dash of mystery and intrigue. It’s an environment designed to transport you back in time, offering a little slice of the Roaring Twenties in the modern day.

How To Throw A Speakeasy Party?

Would you like to throw a speakeasy party?

Start by setting the mood with jazz music, low lighting, and vintage decor, perhaps even encouraging guests to dress in period attire.

You could serve classic cocktails of the time, like a French 75 or a Gin Rickey, alongside finger foods reminiscent of the era.

For added authenticity and fun, consider creating a ‘secret’ entrance or requiring a ‘password’ for entry, mimicking the clandestine nature of historic speakeasies.

Speakeasies were renowned for their innovative and delicious cocktails, many of which are classic favorites today. When hosting a speakeasy party, consider serving some of the following iconic drinks:

  1. Old Fashioned: A timeless cocktail made with whiskey, sugar, water, and bitters. It’s often garnished with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.
  2. Sidecar: This elegant concoction typically combines cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice for a tart, refreshing drink.
  3. Bee’s Knees: A Prohibition-era classic, the Bee’s Knees is a gin-based cocktail sweetened with honey and brightened with fresh lemon juice.
  4. Manhattan: Another whiskey favorite, the Manhattan mixes rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters, typically garnished with a cherry.
  5. Mint Julep: Traditionally served in a pewter cup, the Mint Julep combines bourbon, fresh mint, and sugar for a refreshing cocktail.
  6. French 75: This fizzy delight consists of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and champagne, making it perfect for a celebration.
  7. Mary Pickford: Named after the famous actress, this sweet cocktail includes light rum, pineapple juice, grenadine, and maraschino liqueur.

Remember, part of the speakeasy allure was the craft involved in creating these cocktails, so use quality ingredients and take care in their presentation.

An Old Fashioned Cocktail for a speakeasy party
Old Fashioned cocktail
A Bee's Knees Cocktail for a speakeasy party.
Bee’s Knees Cocktail

When hosting a speakeasy party, you’ll want to serve finger foods that reflect the era but also cater to modern palates. Here are some ideas:

  1. Deviled Eggs: A timeless classic, these are easy to make and eat.
  2. Shrimp Cocktail: This popular dish in the 1920s remains a crowd-pleaser.
  3. Oysters Rockefeller: Luxurious and fitting for the era, these baked oysters are a speakeasy classic.
  4. Sliders: Miniature versions of burgers are easy to handle and widely appealing.
  5. Cheese and Charcuterie Platter: An assortment of cheeses, cured meats, olives, and artisan breads can be both elegant and satisfying.
  6. Stuffed Mushrooms: Small and savory, these make perfect bite-sized appetizers.
  7. Roaring Twenties Cocktail Sausages: Glazed with a bourbon-infused sauce, these sausages would pair perfectly with your speakeasy drinks.
  8. Fancy Canapés: Elegant and easy to eat, these bite-sized appetizers can feature a variety of toppings.
  9. Chocolate Truffles: For dessert, these rich, bite-sized treats can be a decadent finish to the party.

Remember, the key to food at a speakeasy party is that it should be easy to eat, delicious, and reflect the sophistication of the era.

Canapes are a great finger food for speakeasies.
Fancy Canapes for a speakeasy party.
Chacuterie platter for speakeasy party
Charcuterie Platter for a speakeasy party.

Making Your House Look Like A Speakeasy

After visiting several speakeasies, my husband and I decided we wanted to add a bit of a speakeasy feel to our home. Our “cozy home” has smaller rooms, so speakeasy decor lends itself to our space.

We found soft lighting, comfortable seating, and interesting pictures for our walls.

Vintage or retro items like old photographs, antique mirrors, and classic cocktail glassware can enhance the throwback vibe. Furniture with dark wood or leather can reflect the style of the time.

Our speakeasy decor uses cozy lighting
We added cozy floor lamps, comfy pillows, and retro art to our living room after being inspired by the decor in speakeasies.

Cozy decor can help recreate the intimate feeling of a speakeasy

Click here for a complete list of items that will give your home a speakeasy vibe.

Soft lighting for speakeasy decor
Cozy floor lamp
Find on Amazon ▶
Vintage mirror for speakeasy decor
Vintage mirror
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Retro clock for speakeasy decor
Retro clock
Find on Amazon ▶
Cozy pillow for speakeasy decor
Rustic Pillow
Find on Amazon ▶

Consider using a bookshelf or a seemingly ordinary object as a secret door, reminiscent of the hidden entrances speakeasies often had. If possible, designate a separate area as the ‘bar,’ equipped with all the fixings for classic cocktails.

And don’t forget to play some jazz or swing music to complete the speakeasy atmosphere. My suggestions include Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Michael Buble, and Diana Krall.

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Hi! I'm Kristen

I love exploring the quaint towns, fantastic restaurants, and unique travel destinations in the Carolinas. I can't wait to share it with you so you can plan the perfect adventure!

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One Response

  1. I don’t drink, but if I went I would want to feed up in some 1920’s fashion and enjoy the secret trap door entrances!

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