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The modern speakeasy

Felicity Cloake celebrates a new and sophisticated golden age of the cocktail

Cool can be a perverse concept. Take the current vogue for speakeasy bars - faithful re-creations of which would seem, to any right-thinking drinker, about as attractive as a ration-book res­taurant. Fortunately, these modish joints have selective memories, as well as up-to-date liquor licences. Ignoring the rough-hewn realities of Prohibition, the modern speakeasy generally confines itself to having some vaguely old-fashioned decor and a virtuoso display of vintage whiskies behind the bar.

The restaurateur Jeremy King, who knows a thing or two about creating a buzz, having presided over the Ivy in its 1990s glory days, suggested at the recent Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail awards that "access" is the new bling: "What matters nowadays is being able
to get the right table or backstage at Glastonbury." He might have added a Friday-night drink at Please Don't Tell (PDT) in New York City to this wish-list. The four-year-old cocktail lounge is still so hush-hush that it doesn't even have a street door.

Instead, access to this temple of trend is via the ramshackle phone booth of an ordinary-looking hot dog shop. Pick up the receiver, make the right noises and, if you're lucky, the back wall will swing open. It's this theatrical element of exclusivity that is the attraction of many of these "speakeasies" - don't we all, deep down, still yearn to be in the cool gang?

PDT's manager, Jim Meehan, resists the "old-fashioned" label. He claims that restricting access is more about maintaining an atmosphere than trying to conjure up the past. In common with similar establishments, including Door 74 in Amsterdam and the Nightjar in London, he operates a no-standing policy, which means that if all the seats are taken, you're not coming in. The few who make the cut enjoy a level of comfort and service that would have astounded the unfortunate patrons of the original dark, dingy and often dangerous speakeasies.

For all its glamour, the 14 years of Prohibition were a disaster. In 1927, 41 New Yorkers died from alcohol poisoning on New Year's Day. According to Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook, the blame can be laid at the door of the US government. Frustrated by their lack of progress in curbing consumption, officials ordered manufacturers of industrial alcohol to add toxic chemicals to their product, from carbolic acid to mercury, knowing that bootleggers bought it to redistil and sell on as moonshine. The end was felt to justify the means.

Lethal or not, bathtub booze is rarely a pleasant tipple. Those bartenders who hadn't fled abroad were forced to come up with increasingly inventive ways of disguising its flavour. As Frank Shay wrote in Esquire in 1934, the year after the "noble experiment" bit the dust: "The basic raw materials then available - and I use the term 'raw' advisedly - made it imperative that they be polished or doctored or decorated . . . in order that they might pass to their true goal without too great distress to the drinker." Far from the heyday of mixology that some sources claim, this was a period in which cocktails were nasty, brutish and short.

The Martini, the Manhattan and other classics have their roots in the late 19th century, the true golden age of the cocktail. Many bartenders I've spoken to believe that, thanks in part to the new speakeasies, with their dedication to the craft of mixology, we're enjoying a second flowering of cocktail culture. Indeed, these furtive night spots have far more in common with the gin palaces of 1890 than the dives of Prohibition. The hide-and-seek may be a gimmick but, when it comes to drink, they're deadly serious.

Felicity Cloake is the author of "Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire" (Fig Tree, £18.99)

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister