Even if you perfected your cocktail game during the long months of lockdown, sipping a martini on the sofa isn’t quite the same, is it? Cocktails require a dramatic setting, and there’s none further removed from domestic drinking than the speakeasy.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that this century’s roaring 20s are seeing a resurgence of these late-night lounges. From Glasgow to Bethnal Green, in big hotels and basement dives, drinkers are once again savouring mixologist-made cocktails served in the proper glassware.
What is it that makes the speakeasy so compelling? It could be its underground origins, the forbidden thrill adding an extra kick to a drink. ‘I’ve just loved the idea of a speakeasy ever since I watched Bugsy Malone as a kid. Who wouldn’t want to spend a night in Fat Sam’s Grand Slam?’ says Richard Godwin, author and writer of The Spirits newsletter. ‘Anything illicit always feels that bit more appealing.’
In Prohibition-era America, bootleg liquor infused these outlawed bars with a subversive glamour. We haven’t been deprived of booze this past year – far from it, if the rise in DIY cocktail delivery kits is anything to go by. Instead, it’s human contact that’s been off-limits. After months spent observing the two-metre rule, there’s a frisson in rubbing shoulders at the bar again.
A secret spot, only accessible to those in the know, speaks to the exclusivity of a grand hotel or members’ club. It follows that Marcus Barwell, managing director of Soho House Design, drew on the speakeasy for The Parlour at The Ned, a jazz and cabaret bar launched at the London hotel in June. ‘The aim was to create an atmosphere of old-school glamour, an intimate space to take in a performance over dinner or cocktails.’
His team has referenced 30s jazz clubs with plush velvet club chairs and polished burl oak tables. Murano glass flush mount lights shine against a dark, high-gloss ceiling and Maison Jansen-style brass palm lamps add a cosy glow. Jazz and cabaret acts perform on a bespoke ‘sunburst’ stage.
‘Now more than ever, diners are looking for an immersive experience,’ says Jack Cohn, The Ned’s food and beverage manager. ‘Speakeasies encourage people to see drink-making as an art and care about good cocktails again.’
Other hotels are channelling the style of the American bars that swept London and Paris in the 20s, after Prohibition drove all the United States’ top bar talent to Europe. Le Magritte at The Beaumont, which occupies a converted 1926 car park in Mayfair, reopened last month following a refurbishment by French architect and designer Thierry Despont’s studio.
It’s an urbane space with lounge chairs and chesterfields in chocolate mohair and cranberry leather, as well as walls lined in European fiddleback cherrywood. Rose-tinted mirrored tables, reeded glass and antique bronze pendants create glittering light patterns and René Magritte’s Le Maître d'École takes pride of place behind a curved ebony bar.
Wine bars, too, are offering their own spin on the speakeasy. Tucked inside Shop Cuvée in Bethnal Green, Cave Cuvée is the latest opening from natural wine champions Brodie Meah and Max Venning. ‘I love these semi-hidden wine bars,’ says Meah. ‘Formerly the preserve of Paris and other European cities, they’re popping up more now in London.’
Award-winning barman Steve Pineau and master sommelier Xavier Rousset aimed to capture the speakeasy’s covert feel when they opened Nocturne underneath their Old Brompton wine and cheese bar this summer. With floor-to-ceiling curtains, low lighting upcycled parlour furniture, they describe the cocooning basement set-up as ‘a lovely hideaway’.
Operating in the same underground spirit is new Spitalfields bar The Proofing Room and Glasgow haunt The Absent Ear, named for Vincent Van Gogh and a nod to the bar’s secret location. This basement hideout’s surreal decor and theatrical concoctions evoke an absinthe dream.
In Folkestone, Sophie Rowell has squeezed a tiny bar into the back of her antiques shop, The Potting Shed, which guests access by walking through an actual shed. ‘It was important from that point on to feel very different,’ Rowell says. ‘The space is enveloped in “Studio Green” by Farrow & Ball, creating a warm environment, and there’s a green and gold bathroom inspired by Ralph Lauren’s Manhattan Polo Bar.’
Pops of colour include yellow curtains salvaged from a French château and a yellow and white striped canopy over the bar, while one table is theatrically draped in ivy each night.
Perhaps it’s a natural reaction to socialising outdoors for so long – especially as autumn arrives and somewhere cosier appeals. But there’s more to it, says Rowell: ‘It’s that feeling that you almost shouldn’t be there that makes the experience. From receiving the password to walking through the secret doorway, it feels as though you know something that other people don’t.’
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‘Mexican cuisine has really pushed mezcal to the masses – it’s going to blow up this autumn. It gives The Parlour’s signature “Smoking Gun” cocktail – which is a twist on a classic sour – some incredibly sweet and earthy notes, and a smoky finish.’
Jack Cohn, food and beverage manager at The Ned
‘One of my favourite cocktails that I’ve created for The Londoner is “The Martinez”. Using Hibiki Harmony, which is a refined blend of single malts from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, as well as grain whiskies from Chita Distillery, this cocktail is a unique twist on a martini.’
Pierpaolo Schirru, head mixologist at The Londoner
‘Our “Rum Old Fashioned” is a great autumnal drink. Made with spiced rum, brown sugar and Angostura bitters, we then add a dash of Velvet Falernum and garnish with a match-flamed orange twist. So go out and get a bottle of Velvet Falernum to keep in your drinks cabinet.’
Sophie Rowell, owner of The Potting Shed