City 'speakeasies' are a throwback to Prohibition

Jill Maxwell and Devon DeBlasio sit at the bar, facing bartender Phoebe Esmon at Emmanuelle, a cocktail spot in Northern Liberties.
Jill Maxwell and Devon DeBlasio sit at the bar, facing bartender Phoebe Esmon at Emmanuelle, a cocktail spot in Northern Liberties. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff)
Posted: February 01, 2013

There are no exceptions - even on a cold, rainy night in January, you'll have to wait outside the unmarked door of Hop Sing Laundromat in Chinatown for entry.

After the doorman comes out to check your party's IDs (don't try to enter with more than four people) and give you the once-over (don't wear sneakers or hats), you will, if you're lucky, make the cut to the next-level waiting room, where there are more rules (no cellphone photos, video, or talking), and finally to a table where there are yet more rules (cash only, two-drink minimum). Getting into this highly stylized bar on a weekend night almost feels like a personal accomplishment, one that's best rewarded by a stiff and delicious cocktail.

The old-school, speakeasy-style bar is having a moment, fueled by Prohibition nostalgia and a healthy dose of competition among the foodie/boozy elite. Hop Sing and the Ranstead Room are two such "secret" bars in Philly, joining the back-alley ranks of Please Don't Tell, Milk & Honey, and Dutch Kills in New York, Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, and the Gibson in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, the National Constitution Center is exploring the driest moment in American history with its "American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" exhibition, which showcases the conditions that led to the 13-year ban on alcohol and its social repercussions. It's become a regular practice for cocktail lists to be divided into "classic" and modern sections. And the 1920s seem to be the guiding aesthetic for bar decor and fashion. Could we really be yearning for a return to moonshine?

"Prohibition was actually a really terrible time for cocktails in this country," says Al Sotack, head bartender of Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. and beverage manager at Lemon Hill. Opened in 2009, Franklin Mortgage was arguably the city's first contemporary speakeasy-like bar, but it's always been clearly marked, even if it's not always easy to gain admission. "That was the era we lost access to everything and the creativity was in making awful booze palatable," Sotack says of Prohibition.

Any bartender worth the snap in his suspenders will tell you that the real cocktail inspiration actually lies in the pre-Prohibition era, perhaps the historic peak of the craft.

That's when now-trendy drinks such as Clover Clubs, Ramos Gin Fizzes, and Sazeracs were created.

But even as it looks backward, Philly's cocktail scene is vibrant and of the moment. Smaller bars with a strong cocktail focus such as Emmanuelle and 1 Tippling Place have expanded the options for discerning drinkers. "We're seeing new restaurants with cocktail programs that complement their cooking aesthetic, like Vedge, Vernick, and Ela," says Phoebe Esmon, bartender at Emmanuelle. "Hotel groups like the Kimpton and AKA are also raising the bar."

Katie Loeb, local bartender, beverage consultant, and author of Shake, Stir, Pour, says that the farm-to-bar trend is still very fresh, with housemade bitters, fruit syrups, juices, and shrubs showing up not just in cocktail venues, but at neighborhood bars and restaurants. "Chef-driven cocktails can bring these ingredients to the bar. I think that drinks look more attractive now, with better garnishes and glassware."

What gave the Roaring Twenties their roar, of course, was the very illicitness of public drinking. Speakeasies offered the perpetual frisson of potential raids. The newfangled "speakeasy" is more than a bar - it's a novelty, from the immersive decor to the attention to detail. Even a long list of house rules has its charm because it represents a certain social contract: In exchange for your good footwear, you get a pleasant place to drink, a quiet table away from the brawling, fratty Saturday night crowds at other bars.

And like underground supper clubs, hidden cocktail enclaves promise cultural cachet and the thrill of the find in addition to a well-crafted product. "There's nothing new under the sun," Loeb says. "There have always been secret bars and people interested in making classic cocktails."

Still, the excitement around Prohibition as a touchstone era, with the waxed mustaches and sleeve garters, may fizzle like yesterday's egg-white foam as consumers grow as serious about drinks as they are about food. "To quote a friend, 'No one wants to get drunk in Disneyland,' " Esmon says. "I'm not sure if that's quite true, because there are always newcomers who wish to be transported through time via stride piano to a playground for their HBO fantasies. I think the more seasoned patron craves the human details, like conversation, a clean and inviting environment, and maybe a nosh, to go with their cocktail."


Blues Explosion

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces Dickel No. 12 (Tennessee whiskey)

1 ounce grapefruit juice

1/2 ounce maple syrup

1/4 ounce Angostura bitters

1. Combine ingredients and ice in a shaker. Shake, strain, and serve on the rocks.

- Courtesy of Al Sotack, Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. and Lemon Hill


Hot Toddy

Makes 1 drink

For the spiced syrup:

1 cup water

2 cinnamon sticks, broken up

6 whole cloves

1 star anise

4 allspice berries

4 black peppercorns

Pinch red chile flakes

1 cup (710 ml) sugar

For the hot toddy: 

1 tea bag or 1 teaspoon of loose tea in a tea ball

2 strips each of orange and lemon rind, studded with a few cloves

6 ounces boiling water

11/2 ounces rum, brandy or whiskey

1 ounce spiced syrup

1. Make the syrup: Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan and add the spices. Allow to boil for 3 minutes.

2. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Lower heat and allow the syrup to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Turn off the heat and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature. Strain out spices before using and funnel into clean glass bottles for storage. Refrigerate for up to one month.

4. Make the toddy: Place tea bag or tea ball into a large mug.

5. Add orange and lemon rinds. Cover with boiling water and steep for 3-5 minutes.

6. Remove tea bag/ball, add spiced syrup and spirit of your choice, and stir to combine.

- From Shake, Stir, Pour: Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

by Katie Loeb


Baberaham Lincoln

Makes 1 drink

11/2 ounces Famous Grouse

1/2 ounce Creme De Mure or blackberry syrup (see note)

3/4 ounce Aperol

1/4 ounce Vieux Carré absinthe

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

Mint sprig, for garnish

1. Combine ingredients and ice in a shaker. Shake, double strain. Pour into a coupe (shallow stemmed champagne-style) glass. Garnish with mint sprig.

- Courtesy of Phoebe Esmon, Emmanuelle

Note: To make blackberry syrup, combine 1 cup blackberries, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/8 cup water, stirring to dissolve. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes. Strain, pressing the fruit into the mesh strainer to extract more juice. Bring to room temperature.

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