‘Hidden’ bars appear to have sprouted everywhere, with great drinks and the theatrics of making that perfect cocktail almost a given in them. But beyond the Instagram posts and bragging rights, what do you know about the roots of speakeasy culture?
StraitsBlog explores the dark past behind the current trend of posh drinking holes with nondescript entrances.
In contrast to what’s often seen as marketing gimmicks these days, hidden bars first came about as a way to shed unwanted attention during Prohibition (1920-1933).
Prohibition refers to the nationwide ban imposed by the American constitution, where alcoholic beverages was not allowed to be produced, imported, transported, and sold.
However, private ownership and consumption of alcohol were not made illegal. To remain under the radar, the period saw the birth of covert bars, usually with disguised entrances, known only to those from the inner circle. This culture was also known as the ‘speakeasy’ (also ‘blind pig’ or ‘blind tiger’), referring to the practice of speaking in hushed tones about such bars, so as not to alert the police or neighbors.
The bars would operate with a doorkeeper to raise an alert if it was in danger – it would then transform into an ordinary place through a clever mechanism.
The experience in a hidden bar at that time would be thrilling, mysterious, and seen as an intoxicating reprieve from Prohibition. Musicians were unique, the ambience was dark but with a colourful patronage. Liquor of varying grades were sold, at a variety of prices – but usually maintaining a raw taste of the liquor instead of masking it with too many flavors.
A sign of the times
Although the hidden bars of today no longer serve the same purpose, an appeal reminiscent of the times is enhanced by the same disguised entrances – behind a soda machine, or a discreet extension of wall surfaces – which seems to be an even bigger draw for customers seeking them out. Not every one who goes to a hidden bar these days know what they’re getting into, so the next time you immerse yourself in speakeasy culture, remember that there used to be a different side to things.
Our exploration took us to Flask in Shanghai, whose entrance is via an innocuous cafe, Tiger Bites. The door was well-hidden and masked with the same steel detail as the wall behind the counter. Inside, the drink is served as a regular drink, accompanied by a book. On opening the book, you find a flask containing the missing alcohol component. Pour, relax.
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