The Speakeasy: From 1920 to Today

Photo via Business Street Online. In the early twentieth century, it was believed that alcohol was tearing families apart, causing corruption, and increasing crime rates. The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union strongly advocated the ban of liquor, persuading others that it cultivated ungodly atmospheres and actions. The people complained, and the government listened.

On January 16, 1919 the 18th amendment was ratified. A year later, alcohol disappeared from the shelves completely. Reverend Billy Sunday, a “dryist,” described this victory by saying “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

While he and other “dryists” rejoiced, bootleggers and mobsters united. Secret rooms were built. Deathly moonshine concoctions were brewed.

The speakeasy was born.

Technically, it was never illegal to consume alcohol during Prohibition. The amendment merely banned the manufacturing, transporting, and sale of alcohol. However, people’s home stashes dried up quickly, clearly leaving only one option: buying it illegally.

Speakeasies provided this market. Supposedly the term came from owners urging customers to “speak easy” about these illegal, secret locations. They came in all shapes and sizes; some were literally two chairs and a bottle of whiskey. Others were more akin to upscale jazz clubs with live music and stage shows. One famous speakeasy, 21, in New York City, had a hidden wine cellar and mechanical bar that would disappear during police raids.

Recently, speakeasies have resurfaced around the country (without the charm of being arrested for going). There’s just something about crime—and the roaring ‘20s—that fascinates us. Perhaps it’s the allure of the glamorous lifestyle associated with rebellion. Perhaps it’s our love of recycling what used to be in fashion. Boston joined this revival and you too can now experience the lite version of Prohibition. Simply take the red line to Davis Square and try finding Saloon.

Like traditional speakeasies, Saloon was not created to be easily discovered. Tucked beneath a sign for the Davis Square Theater, this bar is virtually undetectable. There is no sign or street side window looking into a crowded bar. There is only a doorman wearing a long peacoat, suspenders, and sporting a curled mustache.

Once you get past him, you are ushered through a door that couldn’t possibly lead to chic Boston nightlife. But at the end of that narrow hallway and dimly lit staircase, there’s the loud hum of buzzed conversation and music. Oddly, it’s modern music, but I guess historical restoration can only go so far.

Late on a Saturday night, Saloon is packed from wall to wall. Shockingly, the attentive bartenders—also in suspenders—are quick to quench everyone's thirst. During Prohibition, the modern cocktail was born; where as it was popular to drink alcohol straight up before the 18th amendment, speakeasies popularized the use of mixers in order to mask the taste of their cheaply made alcohol. Saloon reflects both of those styles with drinks like The Stranger (rye whiskey, Benedictine, and Green Chartreuse) and the Hamilton Daiquiri (white rum, maraschino liqueur, mint syrup, and lime).

During Prohibition, speakeasies did not cater to the lower class. Sneaking liquor was a risky and costly business, so patrons did not have the luxury of drinking for a bargain. Saloon’s prices reflects these times: two cocktails will cost you about $30 with tip.

Although the interior screams bourgeoisie and high-end flapper dresses, most people appeared to be in their mid-twenties and were dressed rather casually. Some drank from tumblers garnished with mint sprigs or raisins, while others drank Colt-45 from cans. Saloon seemingly caters to anyone who is willing to pay for a drink—just like a true American speakeasy.