We’ve Entered A Neo-Prohibition Of Sorts, But The Neo-Speakeasy Has Been Around for Years

We’ve Entered A Neo-Prohibition Of Sorts, But The Neo-Speakeasy Has Been Around for Years

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Do you know what’s worse than beer that goes un-drunk and makes no money for a brewery? It’s beer that goes out of date in the keg or can while it sits there waiting for all the people to come back. Out of date beer could become a monstrous problem during this mandatory shutdown.

More than 20 states have closed restaurants, bars, breweries, wineries and distillery tasting rooms now; that’s a lot of beer getting old in the draft lines and on the shelf. In many states, distributors are allowed to come pick up unopened bottles of liquor from bars, but beer in kegs is just going to sit there. I can almost hear it crying.

So here we are: Prohibition 2020. The original Volstead Act (formally, the National Prohibition Act) was passed in 1919, but didn’t take effect until 1920. That means that our two great dry periods began exactly one century apart. Now that I can predict when it will happen I’ll plan better for the next one. By the way, there actually is a small neo-Prohibitionist movement that wants to ban alcohol production and sales again based on the “evils of drink.”

Our current mini-version of Prohibition doesn’t carry many of the problems of the original – but it does bring serious issues. image credit: Beyond Chron

The first Prohibition (1920-1933) outlawed all but medicinal alcohol, and regulated strongly the production of alcohol for other purposes (science, fuel, dyes, etc.). Weirdly enough, the Volstead Act didn’t really have anything to say about how it would be enforced, nor did it delineate the penalties for producing, selling, or consuming alcohol. It took a bunch more laws and more time to put laws on the books that, along with Volstead, set limits and apportioned penalties.

The states were also allowed to set their own rules as well. Indiana had some of the most draconian statutes on the books, including the Wright Bone Dry Act that outlawed even medicinal alcohols. The penalties in Indiana for making or selling alcohol (bootlegging) were greatly increased under the Bone Dry law, but this didn’t make it any easier for law enforcement agencies to carry out the laws or prevent crime. In fact, the murder rate in Indiana went up while ordinary citizens sat in jail for long periods after being caught with alcohol on their breath (not an exaggeration) or for using whiskey as a last resort treatment for infections. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point this time.

The reason behind the 2020 neo-Prohibition is different from the one in 1920; this time it’s really just a public Prohibition. We can still buy alcohol and drink at home…..oh wait, most people did that during the original Prohibition too. The police aren’t hunting for casks and cracking them open to run into the sewer which is a relief, and no one is driving around town lobbing bombs in the doorways of bars in 1920s gangster fashion….yet.

However, there is one item from the original Prohibition that has made a come back, and it’s actually been on the rise for a few years – the speakeasy. Also called blind tigers, gin joints, or blind pigs, speakeasies were the worst kept secrets of Prohibition. Entire police forces were sometimes bribed in order to have them look the other way, and government officials were some of the speakeasies’ best customers.

The original speakeasies brought men and women together in social settings with alcohol. image credit: Liquipedia

One great thing the speakeasies did was break down the barriers to women and men drinking together. Prior to Prohibition, men drank in bars and women drank at home or their clubs (on the sly). But with the Volstead Act forcing alcohol into the shadows, men and women came together in the speakeasies. Even more, Prohibition put the rich and poor into the same situation; however, they didn’t often drink together.

The rich had gorgeous bars with full jazz bands and floorshows. They also had the wherewithal to have liquor brought to their homes. The middle class and poor drank in back rooms that were all business and very little on entertainment. But whether fancy or mundane, they all had the password you needed to speak in order to get in, and you would “speak easy”, ie. whisper at the door or inside, in order to keep it a secret.

With the repeal of Prohibition there was no reason to keep the speakeasies, bars came out of the dark and became respectable businesses. But in the mid 2010s, the increase in craft distilling brought about the renaissance of the speakeasy, in name and branding. They have popped in many large cities, with literally dozens in New York City alone.

Swordfish Tom’s in Kansas City, Fin & Tonic in Newport News, VA, Commerce in Pittsburgh – the key to all of them is a sense of secretiveness. Some have no sign posted or name on the door. Some have passwords which travel only by word of mouth. Almost all or focused on craft cocktails. Some are just private rooms in other bars, through hallways and doors and down back stairs that aren’t spoken of.

The neo-speakeasies tend to use retro décor and high prices. The caché of knowing and/or being invited is the major draw, and some people complain that these are a form of elitism; you have to know someone to have access and it tends to divide the population of drinkers. This seems strange since the original speakeasies did more to unify drinkers than they did to divide them, but they may indeed be bringing back the economic division of drinkers. It’s interesting that Speakeasy Ales & Lagers in San Francisco is out in the open, with no password needed. It is probable that craft beer is more open everyone than are high-end liquor bars.

Will the illicit speakeasy make a comeback during this period? I doubt it – but as soon as all this is over, the neo-speakeasies with their cache will be popular again. image credit: Fortune

Unfortunately, the current situation with COVID-19 may bring about another incarnation of the speakeasy. Bars, restaurants, breweries, wineries, and craft distilleries run on very narrow margins, so a shut down of even three weeks could make a big difference in their financial viability. Surviving the period on carryout and delivery alone may not be possible, or at the least will be very difficult.

Small neighborhood bars may be tempted to lock the front door but open the back to regulars. This could provide enough revenue to keep them afloat. These neo-speakeasies would be even easier to run than previous additions; a text to a few regulars is all they need do.

Bars that are in urban areas would be the most likely to get away with this, places where walk up traffic is greatest – a full parking lot would be a dead giveaway in this situation. But just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean it’s a great idea. And therein lies the problem – a bar or brewery owner has employees and responsibilities, can they just turn their back on a possible way to save the business? I don’t advocate this, but I do see how hard it would be to stay closed.

This all being said, the Indiana craft beer community has been adamant in their caring for the community since their inception. Bringing in groups of patrons now really defeats the purpose of their social distancing measures, and puts both the customers and their employees in danger of infection. I can’t see the Indiana craft community setting up neo-speakeasies to any great degree. They go against what Indiana craft holds most dear – the good of the people.

In the end, it looks like neo-speakeasies will remain institutions of leisure and legality, being again the craft bars of the hip AFTER this neo-Prohibition is repealed. Our responsibility is to buy carryout and delivery beer and food as much as we can, and to NOT put pressure on brewery/bar owners to do something they know will put the community at greater risk. Be good, do good.

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