The craft cocktail makes its way across the globe
Check out these speakeasies serving up classic cocktails.
Prohibition, America’s 13-year experiment in banning the production and sale of alcohol, is, thankfully, not coming back. But for all of Prohibition’s downsides – and there were many – the era made a few positive and lasting impacts on drinkery, one being the rise of the clandestine bar, the speakeasy.
Today, many bars channel that 1920s style, recreating the thrill of illicit drinking, while marrying it to a renewed focus on cocktails as a craft. The result is that some of the world’s most innovative drinks are mixed up in bars tucked a bit out of sight. These aren’t places that you’d necessarily find on a casual stroll down the street; some, more than others, take a bit of hunting (and several take a bit of planning, too: often you must make reservations in advance). But once you’re inside, you’re in for an experience created by equally fastidious attention to what’s in the glass as to the decor surrounding it. Variations on the theme are endless – some aim to be a cool lounge, others to throw an energetic party. Here are some of the best.
Apothéke, 9 Doyers St., New York City
Apotheke's bar (Photo: Kevin O'Mara/Flickr)
New York is the epicenter of the Speakeasy bar trend – for good reason. During Prohibition, a New York newspaper tried to make up a list of all the places on Manhattan to buy booze and came back with 31, ranging from open saloons to drug stores; and from dancing academies to delicatessens and even moving-van companies.
Among the city’s most authentic is Apothéke on Doyers Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Apothéke’s unmarked door is refreshingly obvious (look for the chemist’s logo). Once inside you'll find a mixology that harkens back to the cocktail’s root – as an elixir, rather than an intoxicating tipple.
The style is of an old apothecary (though rumor has it the building was once an opium den) and the menu is divided into such categories as “health and beauty,” “stimulants” and “aphrodisiacs,” while an individual drink may include anything from cactus pear to thyme essence and eucalyptus tincture.
The bar also hosts a Prohibition Night on Wednesdays, which features redesigned classic cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned made with vanilla and saffron-infused bourbon.
The Violet Hour, 1520 N. Damen Ave., Chicago
You enter the Violet Hour through an unmarked door in Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood. From there you walk down a valanced hallway, a bit like the Red Room from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, before coming into one of the best drinking dens in America. The real treasure is the (very) high-backed chairs the staff can arrange for your party. They create a pseudo-pod, one open to the rest of the room, but still intimate. Cell phone conversation is verboten.
“You’ve got to like the people you are with, or at least you are going to get to know them better,” Eden Laurin, the bar’s managing partner, told From The Grapevine. “Once you get into these doors and get someone to help you get a really boozy, delicious cocktail, it takes like a second to get away from the chaos.”
Helping drinkers through their options, Laurin said, is a key to The Violet Hour, where the menu is long, frequently changing and often experimenting with the latest trends in drinking – from tiki to the recent resurgence of bitter flavors.
Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar, 66 HaYarkon St., Tel Aviv
What makes the Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar a speakeasy isn’t exactly its decor, which was inspired by the imperial officers’ clubs of the far east. It's the fact that, as Bar Shira, one of the co-founders, explained, Imperial is a fine hotel bar that is located inside an ambient, old-world hotel.
“The bar is a nod to colonial times – mainly the European colonies of southeast Asia,” Shira told Drinks International, which named Imperial a "best bar" in 2014.
Shira said they take inspiration from, and serve styles of, “probably every type of cocktail imagined."
“We had to have something for everyone, some fruity and tropical drinks for those who don’t really love to taste the booze and some boozy brown and stirred for those who had a thing against cocktails and thought that they were ‘girly’ drinks,” he said.
Bar Nightjar, 129 City Road, London
London drinkers have embraced the speakeasy with zeal seemingly equal to that of their American counterparts. But in a city that knows good drinks, Bar Nightjar stands out. A nightjar is a bird, one fond of the nocturnal hours. At Nightjar you can drink late into the nocturnal hours by ordering from a list of dozens of house drinks divided into four categories: pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, post-war and signature cocktails.
Co-owner Edmund Weil said he and his staff enjoy scouring historic cocktail books for inspiration from bartenders working throughout the centuries.
“We try to pick out the rubies in the rubble,” he said. “It’s about reinventing those drinks and twisting them and finding ways to encompass new techniques or different ingredients no one has ever tried before.”
In addition to a menu that harkens back to earlier eras – Weil claims inspiration from as far back as the 17th century – Nightjar maintains a collection of antique spirits, some that may be nearly 150 years old.
Experimental Cocktail Club, 37 Rue Saint-Sauveur, Paris
Another more conspicuous speakeasy, the Experimental Cocktail Club is the original of an archipelago of preeminent cocktail and wine bars located in Paris, London and New York.
At the Paris location, bar manager Maxime Potfer said the aim was to incorporate Prohibition’s social side – of creating a bar where people could feel at-home and comfortable, all the while bringing cocktail culture to Paris, a city that, for many years after the peak of the cocktail resurgence in New York and London, was conspicuously missing it.
The club is decidedly more upscale than the splintered logs and worn barrels of yesteryear, but Potfer still works to create a vibe of conviviality – looking more for bartenders with savoir-faire than mixology celebrity.
Nonetheless, the bar’s cocktails are among the most respected in the world – going forward, look for a renewed focus on simplicity and the use of more obscure liqueurs.
The Butcher, Albert Cuypstraat 129, Amsterdam
Yossi Eliyahoo is another barman who took inspiration from Prohibition’s more swinging social side. For his speakeasy, hidden within a burger bar of the same name in Amsterdam’s Albert Cuyp market, he said he wanted to create a place with a high-energy vibe.
“It’s a place that’s happening, where people are socializing and with the lines and elements of Prohibition time: it’s hidden, it’s kind of exclusive, it’s a bit naughty, it feels like everything is allowed,” he told From The Grapevine.
When Eliyahoo, who grew up in Tel Aviv, Israel, and has been working in the bar industry since he was 15, opened the bar, he also found himself amid a burgeoning cocktail scene. Less than a decade ago, he said, it was really hard to find a place that knew how to mix a good drink, and anyone who wanted to was hampered by lack of variety of quality spirits.
With a focus on reimagining classic cocktails and a frequently changing cocktail menu, The Butcher is just one of several adept drinking spots in Amsterdam, changing that dynamic.
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