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Speakeasies, also referred to as “blind pigs” or “blind tigers,” were nefarious drinking establishments that sprang up across America in response to prohibition laws. In the late 19th century, some campaigners had argued a compelling case for the link between the excess consumption of alcohol and various forms of trouble, including the break-up of families, political corruption, industrial accidents, and criminality in general.
Although some states, such as Maine, had passed a law banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol as early as 1851, a nationwide ban on “the manufacture, transportation, or sale of intoxicating liquors” didn’t come into force until 1920. Though consuming alcohol wasn’t against the law under the act, in reality, there were only two legal ways you could drink: buying it from clergymen for religious reasons or from licensed doctors or pharmacies for medicinal purposes.
While pharmaceutical businesses such as Walgreens expanded rapidly, others had to adapt to survive. Yuengling Brewery opened a creamery and made ice cream, Millers temporarily switched production to malted milk, and Coors made porcelain and ceramics.
But it was inevitable that the sale of alcohol would be driven underground. Bootleggers maintained the supply chain, enabling thousands of illegal bars known as “speakeasies” to thrive. Patrons would whisper a password to gain entry without alerting law enforcement. Experts estimate that there were at least 32,000 speakeasies operating at this time in New York City alone — though no one knows the exact number. Many of these hidden establishments, such as the Stork Club on 58th Street and the Cotton Club in Harlem, attracted a celebrity clientele. Some iconic venues, including Chumleys, a Greenwich Village institution, and the famous 21 Club, remained open until well into the 21st century.
Across the country, bartenders at speakeasies often mixed the poorly distilled spirits they sold with fruit juice, soda, mint, or sugar to disguise the taste — creating cocktails in the process. A few authentic original speakeasies still exist in the United States today. Here are some of the best-hidden speakeasies — make sure you keep them secret!
The Green Mill (Chicago, Illinois)
Opened in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Gardens, The Green Mill was renamed and leased to the Chicago mob during Prohibition. One of the mobsters that owned the speakeasy was Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, who was notoriously implicated in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. He worked for Al Capone, who was a frequent visitor to the bar despite the fact that he owned his own speakeasy across the street. The trapdoor behind the bar led to a series of tunnels under the building that were used to bring in the booze and vacate the premises in a hurry if necessary. Today, The Green Mill is an upscale, cash-only cocktail lounge. Order a Jeppson’s Malört, a wormwood-based digestif, and enjoy jazz sets or swing orchestra performances.
Neumann’s (St. Paul, Minnesota)
During Prohibition, the oldest bar in St. Paul fooled local authorities. Punters arriving at the ground floor saloon at Neumann’s Bar and Grill were served drinks containing less than 0.5% ABV to comply with “near beer” alcoholic content regulations. However, a select few were able to sneak upstairs for something stronger. At the top of the stairs, you can still see the peephole window that enabled employees to check who was trying to get in. If the cops came sniffing around, the legitimate bartender could phone his colleague. This timely tip off ensured no one got caught. These days, when you order a Hamm’s beer, you can drink it wherever you like.
The Owl Bar (Baltimore, Maryland)
Several stained glass panels behind the bar of this Baltimore landmark offer a clue to its past as a speakeasy. They read: “A wise old owl sat on an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heard. Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?” During Prohibition, the owner of the Belvedere Hotel installed an owl statue behind the bar.
To the uninitiated it was merely a mascot, but to those in the know it passed on crucial information. Thirsty patrons would look at its eyes; when the owl blinked, there was bootleg whiskey in the basement. You don’t need to look into an owl’s eyes to order a drink today, but the swanky hotel bar also serves pizza, sandwiches, soups, salads, and the delicious crab cakes that Maryland is known for.
Townhouse (Venice, California)
When Italian immigrant Cesar Menotti opened a bar in Venice in 1915, he couldn’t have imagined how tough things would soon get. When prohibition laws were enforced, Menotti had to get creative, so he transformed the ground floor of his saloon into a grocery store. But underground was Del Monte speakeasy, accessible via a trapdoor and a dumbwaiter that could only carry two guests at a time.
The speakeasy sold alcohol smuggled in from Canada through a tunnel that ran from Abbot Kinney Pier. Today, the once-illicit drinking den hosts live entertainment under the new name, Townhouse. Fortunately for today’s customers, Menotti installed a staircase once prohibition laws were repealed.
Pete’s Tavern (New York, New York)
Unlike Manhattan’s oldest pub McSorley’s, which switched to only serving the legally-permitted “near beer” during the Prohibition Era, Pete’s Tavern continued to serve ale. The premises, disguised as a florist, was close to Tammany Hall. Yet local law enforcement turned a blind eye to the establishment. The sign outside advertised roses, violets, and gardenias, but customers weren’t interested in buying bouquets. Behind a dummy refrigerator, was a popular bar — accessible as long as you knew the password.
You no longer need a password to access the tavern, but the dining rooms at Pete’s have remained in the same condition for the past two centuries. Toast the tavern’s brazen patrons with a glass of Pete’s 1864, the house ale, or try one of the establishment’s famous Prohibition cocktails, like the “Brandy Daisy” featuring brandy, rum, aperol, lime juice, and club soda.
Merchant’s Café and Saloon (Seattle, Washington)
At the turn of the century, F.X. Schreiner, the founder of Schreiner's Iris Gardens, had a roaring trade swapping dollars for gold dust and running a bar so prospectors could spend it again. When Prohibition began in Seattle in 1916, he swiftly moved the alcohol and the card room to the basement — paying off the police so customers could continue to drink and gamble uninterrupted. Today, Merchant’s Café and Saloon still sells alcohol, but in order to see the cocktail menu, you’ll need to find the vintage wooden bar under a pressed-tin ceiling that’s now at street level.
The Mint (Sheridan, Wyoming)
The Mint Saloon opened in 1907 and soon became a popular hangout for local ranchers and cowboys in the small town of Sheridan. They would enter, sometimes on horseback, and order whiskey mixed with water known as “a ditch.” When the ban on alcohol sales began in Wyoming in 1919, the place rebranded as the Mint Cigar Company and Soda Shop. But appearances were deceptive.
After local Oran Moore bought the place in 1923, he ran the bar’s back room as a speakeasy. But thanks to tough economic times and a sterling effort from law enforcement, he chucked in the towel in 1930. After a short stint as a realtor’s office, the Mint became a saloon again as soon as prohibition laws were repealed.
Speakeasy (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
This secret bar at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh was used as storage for many years after Prohibition ended in 1933. However in 2012, it was resurrected. The hotel carried out a lavish restoration, trading peeling, pink floral wallpaper for plush, red velvet-upholstered seating.
On the wall is a sign from 1926, which prescribes a pint of whiskey as a cure for insomnia. What remains of the original speakeasy is its escape route — a hidden passageway that leads along the front foundation of the hotel and up the stairs to Oliver Avenue.
Bourbon and Branch (San Francisco, California)
If you’d have walked down Jones Street in San Francisco during the Prohibition Era, you’d have passed J.J. Russell’s Cigar Shop. But this façade was a front. To gain access to the hidden bar, patrons whispered a password that would get them into the store. Once inside, they needed to order a particular brand of cigar for staff to open up the trapdoor that led to the speakeasy downstairs. The reward for such information was bootlegged liquor brought down from Vancouver.
Today, Bourbon and Branch comprises not one but five secret bars. The easiest to access is “The Library” (you’ll need the password “books”) but it’s “The Ipswitch” that was the original speakeasy. Order what you like, so long as it’s not a Cosmo — house rules.