Real Speak: Why is our cocktail scene fascinated with the “speakeasy”?

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

That’s how Thomas (obviously not his real name) got the idea for his speakeasy. After attending some underground dining events, he noticed their total lack of organization. Then he noticed that the first floor of his century-old Metro-area home would make an ideal clubroom. “It’s the house,” he reflects. “The yard, the layout, the fence. All of that allowed me to have a speakeasy. But mostly, it was just fun.”

He ran his speakeasy every Saturday night for four years, having only shut down in the last few months. We drink an old fashioned in the former speakeasy—three rooms of Victorian furniture and antique photos, and a kitchen stacked with bottles. He seems equal parts distressed and wistful about those four years. He’s doubtful of ever re-opening.

Thomas catered to the service industry. Things would usually pick up just after bar close, around 2am, and go until sun-up. He’d pull his bar staff from some of the finest cocktail bars in town. He’d have a small menu of drinks—an old fashioned, a bee’s knees, a special concoction or two—that he’d sell for between $7 and $12. Of course, he had to buy all his alcohol at retail price—that on top of paying bartenders and DJs and replacing all the things people broke or stole, and you can see how this wouldn’t be a money-making enterprise.

People came to Thomas’ because they could get at his house what they couldn’t get anywhere else: a drink, in a bar, after bar close. He admits his ultimate problem was not charging a cover—allowing people to drop by his house, sniff a little nose candy, and hang out for free.

Thomas’ story recalls the true speakeasies of yore—unruly and unpredictable. You’d forgive a guy like Thomas for thinking of places like Volstead’s as poseurs. In fact, he doesn’t. He loves Volstead’s. But why would a legal bar want to co-opt his experience? What’s the appeal of that style of drinking?

Shine the unglamorous light of day down into the basement bar, and a cynic might well have some honest complaints. A “speakeasy” that has all of its paperwork in order? It’s kitsch, they’d cry. It’s safe, sanitized, and pretentious—a Disneyland for drinkers. A real speakeasy is barely controlled chaos—and these bars want all that cachet with none of the challenges.

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Of course, these bars understand the contradiction. Many bars that ascribe to the ‘20s look actively distance themselves from the “speakeasy” story. So what explains the trend? As it turns out, the aesthetic is arbitrary. The popularity of the modern speakeasy has little to do even with the bars themselves (though they are routinely tops in drink-making.) Ultimately, it has more to do with us.

“It’s the excitement of finding something that you didn’t notice before, discovering the unknown,” says Dave West, co-owner of Volstead’s Emporium. “This isn’t a new concept. We’re not claiming to have invented anything. But how are we different from any other bar? You can find anything you want in under two seconds on your phone. This is supposed to be a reward for your effort in trying to find it.”

While it’s not illegal, Volstead’s feels comparatively forbidden in the modern world—blacked out of social media, no phone number, information buried a few layers past the cursory Google search (hell, you’re reading about it in a print magazine). Not knowing everything about a bar before you go is an honest thrill in 2016. They aren’t a secret, but they’re enough removed from the fray to feel like one.

This uncertainty is even more compelling when you know exactly what to expect everywhere else. The Twin Cities drinking and dining scene is infected with a contagious dose of sameness. The phrase “chef-driven twists on classic American staples, with craft cocktails and extensive local craft beer” could describe a couple hundred restaurants in Minneapolis–St. Paul.

Sure, I feel kind of stupid for enjoying the ginned-up kabuki of a waitress suddenly appearing from behind a mirror. But I can’t deny that places like Volstead’s offer a legitimately different drinking experience than anywhere else in town.

“The pretentiousness, the perceived notions, those stop at the door,” says Volstead’s bartender Darrin Commerford. “And then it turns into a place you can get lost in.” The details in the wallpaper change depending on the light. The triangular arrangement of rooms allows you to be a voyeur without leaving your seat. “Where else can you draw a curtain, and do an absinthe drip, and just get drunk and stare into in each other’s eyes?”

Modern speakeasies should feel as forced and cheesy as theme restaurants. Instead, they deliver some of the most genuine drinking experiences in town. They are refreshing. They have no denominator because they don’t allow you to have expectations. It’s remarkably egalitarian in that respect. And it’s real because it only survives if people tell other people about it. This new concept in drinking gives us ownership of a bar, and it’s at the mercy of the market. Let’s run with it, and not look back.

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About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.

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