Speak Easy, Drink Well

In New York, speakeasy-style bars are all the rage. Dark, guarded by doormen or hidden behind a “front” establishment like a hot dog stand or a drugstore, these modern shrines to the cocktail recall the thrill of illicit drinking during Prohibition.

On a recent tour through Harlem, home to hundreds of speakeasies in its heyday, our tour guide, George, illuminated the origin of the term. “That’s the American expression coming in. Speak easy is like, speak softly. Speak easy when you whisper to the guy behind the door, ‘George sent me’”.

In the United States the federal ban on the sale, importation, production, and transportation of alcohol lasted from 1920 until 1933. Fortunes were made on the sale of illicit booze. Organized crime flourished. So did jazz.

John Hammond first heard Billie Holiday sing in a bar on W. 133rd street in Harlem, on the block between Lenox and Seventh Avenue — nicknamed “Swing Street” because there were so many jazz clubs. Here, African Americans and white people mixed freely.

Prohibition had some democratizing effects.

In Canada, Prohibition never took hold quite so thoroughly. Canadians voted for Prohibition in a national referendum in 1898, but the federal government left legislation in the hands of the provinces, who often left it in the hands of counties or municipalities who could “opt in” to Prohibition with a plebiscite. In the Yukon, “wet” since before the Gold Rush, the “wets” and the “drys” battled it out in three different plebiscites between 1916 and 1921. The wets fi nally won, and you could buy booze at government liquor stores in Mayo, Dawson, and Whitehorse. But you still couldn’t get a drink in a hotel for another 30 years.

However, these days in New York City it’s hard not to find a good cocktail in bars and restaurants in neighbourhoods across the city. But access to the alluring speakeasies is not assured; they make you work for your cocktail.

First you have to find the place, which may be through a door at the back of a Japanese restaurant in the East Village (Angel’s Share) or tucked away behind a crumbling staircase in an alley in the Lower East Side (The Back Room). Then you may have to wait a couple of hours before there’s room for you. Or you might not get in at all.

Why? They don’t like the cut of your jib.

I like Death & Co. because it’s entirely democratic. Entry is on a first-come, first-served basis. If there’s room, you’re in. If not, they’ll call you when a space opens up.

On a recent visit to Death & Co. at 7:30 on a Saturday night my fellow tippler and I lucked out. The doorman ushered us in and we watched the room fill up as we nursed our cocktails — a boozy, bourbon-based Hunt and Peck, and a smoky, orange-fragrant, tequila- and-mescal-based Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, a drink now served in bars across the country, but invented here by bartender Phil Ward.

Though the ritual of entry and the dark interior recalls swinging Prohibition days, the experience at Death & Co is highly controlled. You are not meant to swing. The servers refi ll your water glass after every sip. And the cocktails celebrate the taste of the spirits, unlike Prohibition cocktails, which were designed to mask bad booze. Where cocktails are concerned, legal is better.

When we left Death & Co, a couple of older gals in a parked car accosted us. “Excuse me, what is that place? We live here, and we see people going in and out all the time, and we are mystified.”

We explained it was a cocktail bar.

“Is there music?” No.

“Is the décor nice?” It’s so dark you can’t really tell.

“Well, what is the appeal?” The cocktails, pretty much.

“Oh, I can’t drink cocktails like I used to. Thank you!”

And they waved and drove away. 

Oaxaca Old Fashioned

(Adapted from Death & Co.)

1 ½ oz. reposado tequila

½ oz. mezcal

1 tsp. agave nectar

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Twist of orange peel, for garnish

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over one large ice cube. Light a match over the glass; squeeze orange peel about an inch from the flame so that the oils spark, then drop peel into drink.

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