What is a speakeasy?


With so many so-called "speakeasy bars" popping up around Kuala Lumpur seemingly every other week, the word "speakeasy" has become perhaps one of the most over-used yet misunderstood words in the industry lately.

The recent trend seems to be to build a bar, hide the entrance, and call it a speakeasy. In truth, a speakeasy is more than just a bar with a hidden entrance. But before we get to the modern definition of what a speakeasy is, let's go back to the origin of the word.

The term "speakeasy" originally referred to the illicit drinking houses during the Prohibition-era (1920-1933) in the United States. At the time, it was illegal to sell and consume alcohol, so people started serving alcohol behind closed doors in discreet locations usually only known to a select few.

"These bars were small, had no signs and hid any indication that they were a bar by having decoy entrances and such, to avoid getting caught. They often were "invitation only" bars with passwords to ensure that the right people were walking through their doors," explained Shawn Chong, co-founder of Omakase + Appreciate in Kuala Lumpur, and Sparrow bar in Kota Damansara.

"They were also selling their own poor quality "bathtub" gins and moonshine, and would mask the flavour by mixing the booze with sugar, bitters and occasionally juice. This was a loose form of cocktails common in all speakeasy bars."

Of course, Prohibition was a long time ago, and the definition of "speakeasy" has also changed in modern times.

Chong's personal definition of a "speakeasy" is any bar that has been modelled and conceptualised after those Prohibition-era speakeasies.

"First, the entrance needs to be inconspicuous and hard to find. There should be no sign," he said.

"On the inside, a speakeasy should have a cocktail programme as their primary mode of sales. A speakeasy does not engage in bottle sales, as it was easier to mask the flavour and look of a single glass of alcohol than a full bottle."

Joshua Ivanovic, managing director of KL Cocktail Co, reckons that calling hidden bars "speakeasies" is an outdated trend that's been done to death globally. "What makes it worse is a lot of people aren't even getting close to the concept.

Speakeasies were places to buy alcohol when alcohol was illegal.

Therefore a bar with a huge balcony overlooking a busy street that's clearly visible to anyone is not a speakeasy," he said, adding that ideally, a speakeasy should use word of mouth to drive its marketing, and be a dimly lit space hidden from the general eye that requires effort or knowledge to gain entrance.

Angel Ng, head bartender at PS150 on Jalan Petaling, KL, concurs. "A real speakeasy also shouldn't have any publications stating where the bar is, and the only way you will know where it is is through word of mouth," she said.

"One must not have a social media page, unless it is just a check-in page. There should be no full address, maybe just a contact number."

Ng is adamant that PS150 bar is NOT a speakeasy. "You can call us 'sneaky' but definitely not speakeasy. We take reservations and our full address is on every publications! You can hear our music pumping from the back door and we have a bouncer at the front to direct confused guests to the bar. Our PS150 sign is on the door!"

Chong and his partner Karl Too, on the other hand, both refer to Omakase + Appreciate as a "real speakeasy". "It was designed to recreate a 1920s prohibition vibe by having no sign, and locating it in a basement unit in a typical office building built in the 1980s. We do Prohibition-era cocktails, but also cocktails from every era," said Too.

While Too welcomes the increasing numbers of cocktail bars in KL, he is concerned that marketing bars that are not speakeasies as such could affect the growth of the industry. "Most of these bars are not actually speakeasies, just "hidden". It would be better for them to define their concept properly," he said.

Chong concurs, adding that the trend is creating a lot of confusion. "It's just a common case of following a trend without much research done. In today's cocktail scene, a speakeasy should always have originality in what is being offered to their guests. There has to be a unique selling point about the drinks."

While Zachary Luther, bar manager at Shelley Yu's and Ril's in Bangsar, KL, reckons that the term "speakeasy" is thrown around a bit too loosely these days, he also isn't overly bothered by it.

"Though I think it is a bit silly that so many bars are calling themselves speakeasies, at the end of the day, if I have a good experience, that's what I'm taking with me, not the level of authenticity or similarity to a prohibition-era speakeasy. Alcohol is legal now, and therefore nothing is actually a speakeasy, so having a strict definition of what a speakeasy is seems a bit unnecessary," he said.

Luther also thinks that the allure of having a hidden entrance has been lost in the sea of speakeasy-style bars opening up lately.

"What I really want to see is new bar experiences. Let's get some signs out there, I don't always want to have to look around the block for 10 minutes to find the newest bar's entrance!" he said.

So, if these so-called "speakeasy bars" aren't actually speakeasies, then what should we call them then?

"How about just 'a bar'? What's so wrong with just being a cocktail bar?" said Ivanovic.

Michael Cheang likes to speak easy and carry a big drink. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (www.facebook.com/mytipsyturvy) or follow him on Instagram (@mytipsyturvy).