Best Speakeasies

If you think this has been a long, cold winter, you should have been around in 1920. Prohibition had just started, making it tough to find a decent drink anywhere. Many of today’s top cocktail establishments like to affect the speakeasy vibe with passwords and secret entrances, but you can still get a glimpse of the real Boardwalk Empire at these once-illicit watering holes, where rumrunning, police raids and trap doors were just part of a regular night.

Bill’s Gay Nineties, 57 East 54th Street, New York, 212 355 0243:

While New York is alleged to have offered nearly 100,000 speakeasies at the height of Prohibition, Bill’s endures as one of the most famous and most nostalgic. The walls are a pictorial history of the dancers and desperadoes who indulged at this converted Midtown Manhattan brownstone.

What to Drink: Bronx Cocktail (gin, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, orange juice)

Bourbon & Branch, 501 Jones Street, San Francisco, 415 346 1735:

To get into the library room at this cocktail Mecca, you’ll need a password. But the Roaring Twenties feel is not just posturing; the building was home to a basement speakeasy located below the JJ Russell Cigar Shop from 1923 to 1933, complete with five escape tunnels.

What to Drink: The Stiletto (Scotch, Averna, honey syrup, Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters)

John Barleycorn, 658 West Belden Avenue, Chicago, 773 348 1570:

“Barleycorn’s” ducked Prohibition by pretending to close down. The owners even opened a laundry in the rear of the Lincoln Park establishment, and the booze was smuggled in under baskets of dirty linens. Now, of course, it’s a legitimate bar and offers a cozy back room with a fireplace and a warm-weather beer garden.

What to Drink: Cocktails by the pitcher, made with locally produced 4 Rebels Vodka

The Oakroom at The Seelbach Hilton, 500 Fourth Street, Louisville, Ky., 502 585 3200:

Opened in 1905 at a cost of about $990,000, the Seelbach Hotel was a turn-of-the-century marvel. Its Oakroom served as a poker den and a pit stop for Al Capone during his exploratory jaunts to bourbon country. However, it’s the hotel’s lavish, Bavarian-inspired Rathskeller bar (pictured above), officially closed until after Repeal, where the real Prohibition imbibing occurred.

What to Drink: Seelbach Cocktail (bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, Champagne)

Velvet Tango Room, 2095 Columbus Road, Cleveland, 216 241 8869:

While this building has housed a blacksmith, a barbershop and several legitimate bars, it retains its speakeasy character. There’s a jazz piano, a back room hidden behind a two-way mirror and a tin ceiling riddled with bullet holes.

What to Drink: French 75 (Hendrick’s Gin, simple syrup, lemon juice, Champagne)

Looking for more great watering holes? Check out our bar guide for the best bars in the world.

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  2 Comments.

Discussion

  • David posted 7 years ago

    @Brian : I don't think Ball & Biscuit can claim "actually was a speakeasy", which I think was the point of this post. Don't get me wrong: they make good drinks (including an Aviation, done properly -- with creme de violette. The Grand Marnier Smash was new to me, and also very good). But they're a new bar: they "affect the [pre-]speakeasy vibe", but don't have the actual history.

    Also, I'll disagree with the article's recommendation of the Stiletto from Bourbon and Branch. It's not a bad drink, but they do better. My favorite is the Devil's Advocate (gin, lemon, raspberries, absinthe, and I'm probably forgetting something). You also can't go wrong with the Claremont Affair (pear-infused rye, amaro nonino, and orange bitters, if I remember correctly). My girlfriend likes the Eva Perron so much that I had to recreate it at home! (Fernet Branca, Carpano Antica Vermouth, lime juice, ginger liqueur, ginger beer.)

  • Brian posted 7 years ago

    You missed a great one in downtown Indianapolis called Ball & Biscuit. It has a full pre-Prohibition menu --> www.ballandbiscuit.com


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