I’m convinced that there is perhaps no trend in modern American — and now global — nightlife culture that has more outlived its welcome than the speakeasy bar.
At this point, they aren’t a trend, but a clichè. Every major city has a few and the vast majority are pretentious places that use the gimmick to charge two or three times the price of every bar in the area.
I had an inkling that speakeasies had jumped the proverbial shark before I left New York City in March, but after visiting near identical establishments in Singapore, Hong Kong, Sofia, Jerusalem, and Bali, I am convinced: They have lost their charm.
It wasn’t always this way.
The speakeasy trend began innocuously on New Year’s Eve 1999 with the opening of Milk & Honey in New York City by then-unknown, now legendary bartender Sasha Petraske. Milk & Honey featured many of the hallmarks of today’s ubiquitous speakeasies: reserved atmosphere, suspender-clad bartenders, giant ice cubes, craft cocktails, rules of entry, and a hidden entrance.
During the Prohibition Era in the 1920s, when the US government banned alcohol, illegal, hidden speakeasies arose as a means to continue selling alcohol. In retrospect, these clandestine entertainment venues, where jazz, booze, and youth culture flourished, look glamorous.
Milk & Honey took some of its cues from the era, but Petraske’s vision was larger than that. A man raised by Communists, according to the New York Times, Petraske saw Milk & Honey as a democratic alternative to loud, glitzy, name-dropping Manhattan bars.
Milk & Honey and Petraske revived cocktail culture in the US and — not to get too grand, but — the rest of the world. Of course, there were successors: Angel’s Share stands out, as do masterful iterations on the trend like New York’s Please Don’t Tell.
The speakeasy trend served a purpose: to get people to care about good cocktails again and to see drink-making as an art similar to cooking. And it worked. As Nielsen reported in 2016, 23% of Americans regularly drink cocktails at restaurants and bars and liquor and cocktail sales keep going up, according to industry tracker IWSR. As Thrillist’s Kevin Alexander wrote last year, the cocktail revolution is over: Cocktails won.
And that’s a valid purpose, similar to how many credit Starbucks with jumpstarting modern coffee culture.
But, now, I believe, it’s time for them to go. Today the speakeasy trend feels less about reforming modern drinking culture and more about pageantry: who can come up with a more precocious entrance mechanism, whose bar has a more elaborate backstory, and who can stuff the most obscure ingredients into a single drink.
At this point, I’ve entered a bar through a sliding bookcase, a refrigerator door in a bodega, and, most ridiculously, an antique key ring with dozens of keys from which you have to guess the right one.
The menus, too, seem to be getting longer. One speakeasy I visited in Montreal had a menu the size of a novella and a backstory detailing an elaborate murder mystery. Do I need to feel like a real-life member of Clue, trying to solve who killed whom with what in which room, every time I want a stiff drink?
Perhaps, at some point, all of this passed as creativity. But, these days, it all feels like variations on the same clichè. The bar concept feels like a shorthand to sophistication or coolness. I’m convinced people don’t go to these places to really drink or socialize, but to buy one expensive drink and snap a photo of the bar for their Instagram.
I should be clear: I don’t dislike good cocktails. And oftentimes, the speakeasies are a good bet to get a good drink. In Singapore I visited the Spiffy Dapper and, while it had a menu that rivaled a dictionary in length and detail, the bartenders were hilarious and made creative drinks. But as often as not, it ends up being the place to get an overwrought drink that feels like a kid toying with his chemistry set for [insert outrageous price indexed to your cost of living].
Let’s be honest. Not every drink needs a sage tincture or the oil of a rose plucked from the top of Macchu Picchu at sunset. Sometimes, a simple drink made correctly is all you need.
As Greg Seider, whose East Village haunt Summit Bar was once named the best cocktail bar in New York, told me last year, if he wants to know how good a bar is, he orders an Old-Fashioned. It’s three ingredients, and if you can’t get the balance of that right, why bother drinking the drinks riddled with cordials and tinctures.
Petraske died in 2015, but his legacy lives on. Let’s hope it’s the part about expertly made cocktails in a relaxed setting, not the 1920s cosplay.
To whoever is in charge of these cultural movements: kill the speakeasy. Let’s move on to the next thing. Whatever it is, make it happen soon. I don’t know if I can bear another $26 drink that requires a password to get.