Whether it was in movies, books, school, or a bar, you’ve probably heard of the Prohibition Era and the famous speakeasy. But what exactly is a speakeasy? If you are asking yourself, “what is a speakeasy?” we get it. How can something that rose so long ago still play a role today?
The history of the famous speakeasy goes back to the 1920s and has given inspiration to multiple pieces of pop culture today. It is intertwined in a lot of the food and drink scenes in the cities and provides a one of a kind experience unlike any other. Many think the concept died out in the 1920s, but that is far from true.
In this article, we will discuss the rise of the Prohibition Era and speakeasies, where they came from, and how they play a role in culture today.
In the 19th century, opposition to alcohol had been continuously building and growing within the United States for years. Many people thought alcohol was a sin and that it was the cause of a lot of destruction within cities. When Industrialization took over United States cities around the 1920s, many thought that if there was a ban on alcohol, it could solve a lot of social problems, reduce the tax burden of poorhouses and prisons, and even improve city health and hygiene among individuals. Government leaders pushed for the amendment to be passed, hoping that it would benefit society in one way or another.
From there, the 18th amendment was created and went into effect in January of 1920. This amendment outlawed the production, importation, and sale of all alcohol. The trick here was that it did not explicitly prohibit the consumption of alcohol. However, as selling alcohol and producing it was now illegal, all bars had to close their doors and go out of business.
This did not stop people from drinking, though. From this amendment came the birth of the speakeasy bar and what is known as the Roaring Twenties. So what is a speakeasy?
What is a speakeasy?
The definition of a speakeasy bar is essentially an establishment of some sort that sells illegal alcohol. These types of places rose tremendously during the prohibition era as people still wanted to continue drinking but had to be secretive about it. To avoid any sort of detection by law enforcement, speakeasy venues had to be kept extremely secret. Consumers would have to “speak quietly” or “speak easily” about these places, which is where the term “speakeasy” comes from!
To get into a speakeasy, it would usually require some kind of password that the consumer would have to say through a speakeasy peephole to avoid detection. Owners even exploited low paid police officers with lucrative payoffs to look the other way or enjoy a drink themselves. Planned raids were tipped off, and many places never got caught.
Another term for a place similar to a speakeasy was called a “blind pig,” as patrons paid to see an event and got alcohol for free, therefore avoiding the actual sale of alcohol. These places were a little less chic than a traditional speakeasy and typically served beer compared to a speakeasy that provided luxury cocktails and nightlife.
And while it started off pretty innocently, criminals and gangs were very quick to jump on board. Selling illegal alcohol was very profitable as a business as the demand was so high, which provided a key revenue stream for many gangsters, even notorious ones like Al Capone and Frank Costello.
Bootlegging became very popular as people began to make their own alcohol to avoid the law. This created what is known as moonshine, homemade liquor, something that is still around today. This alcohol was seen as a lot stronger than store bought as it wasn’t controlled.
Competition between speakeasies also grew for more patrons, which created the demand for live entertainment at these venues. Jazz music was already very popular, and the unique dances that came from it fit perfectly into this party and raucous era. With the many underground clubs that arose, the prevalence of partying and jazz bands grew as well and deemed the era the “Roaring Twenties.” This era can be seen in some of the best movies and books of all time, like “The Great Gatsby” and “Midnight in Cairo.”
The end of prohibition
Prohibition obviously did not succeed. Many were no longer asking “what is a speakeasy” as word got around. After an early drop in alcohol consumption initially, it began to steadily rise again as prohibition went on and speakeasies grew. Since the alcohol was illicit and production was not controlled, the product became even more dangerous and potent as people put in unknown substances that were potentially dangerous and contaminated the process.
It was much easier to transport smaller quantities of stronger liquor than it was to move larger quantities of beer or other lighter alcohol, which increased the consumption of hard liquor. Alcohol was still being consumed, even more than before, and the government wasn’t even able to tax it, so finally, Prohibition was repealed after almost 14 years.
The continuation of speakeasies
Today, while alcohol is legal and the 18th amendment was revoked, we still see the leftover marks of speakeasies and the prohibition era on newer generations. Many secret bars or prohibition style pubs and bars play on the concept of the 1920s speakeasy. Everyone loves a little bit of mystery and excitement, and that is what these bars do so well. They create a lucrative space that you are drawn into because it feels daring and exciting, transforming you back into the roaring 20s.
In 1993, many years after the prohibition era, Angel’s Share opened up. Angel’s Share is considered the rebirth of speakeasies, and without the internet to help the discovery, Angel’s Share spread solely by word of mouth.
After another seven years, Milk & Honey opened up, a world renowned speakeasy. A couple more years passed as speakeasies began to make their way into pop culture as sophisticated places that were one of a kind. Today, with the help of Facebook, Instagram, and apps like Yelp, patrons are more empowered to seek out quality establishments, and yet they still are on the hunt for that secretive quality. Although, nothing is a secret on the internet for long.
The original speakeasy concept still carries throughout our nightlife today in more ways than one. Nowadays, the term is used loosely to describe a retro style cocktail bar, sometimes coming with a hidden entrance or 1920s theme as a nod to the incredible era that was the Prohibition.
Patrons expect more from a bar than just a good drink these days. Bars like the Pourhouse stepped up and created an atmosphere that pulls you into the 1920s. The Prohibition themed bar works as a jack of all trades, providing luxury bottle service and unique live music, but also doubles as a delicious American style lunch, happy hour, and sports spot. What really makes this bar is the speakeasy decor. You really feel like you are right in the Prohibition era when you step into the venue.
The beauty of the Prohibition Era
While many hated this era when it first came around and made alcohol illegal, it gave rise to one of the most iconic times of United States history as people came together to dance and drink the night away during hard times. That is what the speakeasy represents: a secretive and exciting time to celebrate with your friends and have the time of your life. It is thrilling and encompassing, and while there aren’t a whole lot of speakeasies in Minneapolis, the places there do it well like the Pourhouse.
If you are still asking, “what is a speakeasy?” we invite you to check it out yourself if you don’t believe us. No password is required.