Ah, the Roaring Twenties! Women had recently earned the right to vote and the Prohibition era was in full swing. For those who weren’t paying attention in history class, Prohibition banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol, making it extremely difficult for anyone to consume or sell it. But any experienced rebel will gladly inform you, wherever there’s a will…there is most certainly a way. That is where speakeasies came in.
Known as a “speakeasy” for how low you had to speak the password to gain entry, these private, unlicensed barrooms were basically the only way someone could purchase or sell alcohol throughout Prohibition. Surprisingly enough, these exclusive establishments still exist today. You only have to know where to search, and in a city as conservative as D.C., searching for unconventionality can often prove tiresome. Luckily, my search wasn’t entirely straining, but rather enlightening. Although I was searching for a change from the customary D.C bar scene, I also wanted an answer as to why so many speakeasies continued popping up around the area and what made them so special.
The first stop on my illuminative speakeasy tour led me to The Gibson. At first glance, I assumed I was lost; about to find myself in a scenario straight out of a Dario Argento film. Located at the intersection of 14th and U Street, the only indication I was in the right place was an incandescent blue light above an unmarked door. What I discovered upon gaining admittance was an entirely different story. Dimly-lit light bulbs dangled along the ceilings, creating an overall cozy backdrop while plush red booths remained scattered along the U-shaped interior, providing a seductive setting for what was to come.
After carefully examining the menu, I decided upon the “Chuck Brown,” a vastly different option than my usual gin and tonic, featuring Belle Meade Sour Mash Bourbon, honey, pamplemousse, and lemon. Considering my enthusiasm to explore the Bourbon route for awhile, my choice was a delicious initiation into the elite world of Whiskey. My general experience left me in awe. Although this wasn’t my first rodeo within the realm of speakeasies, The Gibson definitely left a pleasant imprint on my memory, and one I hope to revisit soon.
My next destination took me Downtown to Denson Liquor Bar. After engaging in a few moments of confusion, I eventually found the entrance to this subterranean hideaway at the bottom of a stairwell on 6th Street. Once I made it past another unmarked door, I found myself transfixed in an Art Deco daydream. Everything, from the opulent black-and-white-tile flooring to the distinguished leather booths made me feel as if I landed in a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Staying true to my affinity for gin, the mixologist recommended I try the “Delilah,” which featured Green Hat gin, orange cordial, and lemon.
His recommendation was nothing if not accurate, because after downing my cocktail, I ordered another on account of how refreshing the first round tasted. Upon leaving Denson, I found myself in an overall state of satisfaction, which I rarely experience when leaving a bar nowadays. Perhaps that’s because I spend the majority of my time at dive bars, consuming rail gin and interacting with bartenders who couldn't care less about my preferences, nor take the time to inquire. A week later, I found myself at Harold Black, a true speakeasy, tucked above Acqua Al 2 in the Eastern Market neighborhood. After I made it up the dimly lit steps, past a large sliding wood wall, I immediately felt as if I had been teleported back to the 1920s.
Wistful trinkets and novels graced the sitting room, while round leather booths adorned the intimate space specifically designed to seat only 30. I chose a seat at the bar and was instantly greeted by a friendly bartender, who took my preference for gin and transformed it into an ingenious concoction. For my second round, I chose something off the menu, deciding upon the “Penicillin,” featuring scotch, honey, spiced ginger and lemon. It was a definitely a stronger choice than my first, but altogether interesting on the palate. After a few moments more of reminiscing in the relaxed environment, I thanked the bartender and went on my merry way.
In my Uber, I began thinking about my speakeasy journey. My goal throughout this entire expedition was to understand the fascination behind speakeasies and why residents of D.C are so compelled by them. There is something immensely sexy about a speakeasy, which one cannot obtain from their neighborhood dive bar. Perhaps the answer is hidden within the exclusivity of the concealed establishment or the innovative cocktails mixologists take time to create. Whichever the answer, it appears speakeasies have developed a cult following within The Nation’s Capital, which doesn’t appear to be vanishing anytime soon.