Prohibition and the Word Speakeasy
With just three short sentences and 106 words, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution established the prohibition of alcohol. Congress then passed a 25-page law to lay out the full details of enforcement. Officially known as the National Prohibition Enforcement Act, the legislation was more commonly called the Volstead Act after one of the sponsors of the bill.
As it turns out, Congressman Andrew Volstead represented the 7th Congressional District of Minnesota. Largely the western half of the state, and a seat now held by Rep. Collin Peterson. As a result of the Congressman’s namesake legislation, there are a number of speakeasies around the country, and here in Minnesota, that have “honored” his work by naming their establishments after him. Ironically, Volstead was not a teetotaler; he apparently enjoyed chokecherry wine. He was the sponsor of the legislation because of his role as the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The term speakeasy originated in Australia in the early 19th Century and was in use in America by the latter half of the 1800s. It was popularized during the Prohibition era (1920-1933). Speakeasy is used to describe an establishment that sells alcoholic beverages illegally, and it derives from “speaking easy” or quietly, both about such places and while patronizing them.
Today, exactly 100 years after the start of Prohibition and 87 years since its end, the term is used to describe a bar that is at least somewhat less well-publicized, and, as a result, has some added cachet for those who are “in the know.” It’s often a bar with a fun atmosphere that plays to the 1920s Prohibition theme, when they were really in existence. With the craft cocktail revival that has been underway for the past 20-30 years, there has been an explosion of great venues offering well-made drinks, including speakeasy-style bars. The following is my unofficial, and likely incomplete, list and review of some of my favorite speakeasies around the Twin Cities.
Twin Cities Speakeasies
As mentioned, several establishments bear the name of the former Minnesota congressman. Volstead’s Emporium is located in the Uptown area of Minneapolis very close to the intersection of Lake and Lyndale. To gain entry, you knock on a non-descript gray door with a bare red lightbulb above it. The bar offers prohibition era cocktails and has a variety of seating areas, including booths with a mirror on the wall. If you push the button under the mirror, your server will open the mirror from the opposite side to take your order. There is also a secret room inside of this already clandestine spot.
The other speakeasy bearing the name of the late congressman is The Volstead House – Whiskey Bar and Speakeasy. The bar can be found behind the red door at the back of Burgers and Bottles in Eagan. The wall of spirits, over 15 feet high, behind the bar is one of the most impressive you will see anywhere. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, and the cocktails are a mix of classic and unique. The cocktails are excellent, and the food is also good.
One of my favorites is Al’s Place, named for Al Capone, its infamous, but in this case fictitious proprietor. The staff are all dressed in 1920s era garb and patrons are encouraged (but not required) to do the same. The drinks are excellent and there is a live flapper singer on Friday and Saturday evenings. The speakeasy is located above Stanley’s in Northeast Minneapolis. The bar can be accessed from outside by knocking on a non-descript door with no handle and a green light above it, or from inside the photo booth in Stanley’s.
The Barrel House Piano Bar Lounge is located in the basement of Birch’s Lowertown Taproom, which is located right next to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market and the St. Paul Saints Stadium. The bar is cozy with fun, retro 70s style décor and seating. The drinks are well made, and there is live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Back Bar at Young Joni can be found by walking down the alley on the side of the restaurant. If the red neon light is on, the bar is open and indicates where the concealed door can be found. The atmosphere has the warm feel of a cabin along with the mishmash of furniture you would expect to see in a cabin. Adam Gorski, best known for his work at La Belle Vie, runs the cocktail program and is probably one of the most talented bartenders in town. The cocktails change frequently and are among the best and most interesting in the Twin Cities.
Cobble Social House is one of the newest speakeasies on the scene. It’s a small, quirky, but cozy and fun space on three levels. The drinks are great and the menu has a list of classic cocktails and original drinks, which are creative and excellent. The food is also very good here. The speakeasy is located in the North Loop neighborhood in a building adjacent to the Monte Carlo Restaurant, right next door to D. Nolo clothing boutique. Look for the golden eye painted on the side of the building to find the entrance.
The Velveteen is located in downtown Stillwater. The bar is unmarked, but from the outside of the building, find “follow the rabbit” etched in the sidewalk, and then follow the “Vs” to the entrance. The interior is a warm, inviting atmosphere in the lower level of the building. The cocktails are very well made and the menu has both classic, prohibition era drinks, as well as creative contemporary originals. The food is great here too.
Tequila Butcher, a fun bar and restaurant in its own right, also houses Sockdollager hidden behind the phone booth at the back of the restaurant. This speakeasy, located in Chanhassen, has great classic cocktails, including an excellent Ramos Gin Fizz. They also have a very extensive 11-page whiskey menu, which includes a full page of whiskey flights.
Effects of the Pandemic
Unfortunately, the pandemic is affecting many bars and restaurants across the Twin Cities. Several of the places mentioned in this article have adapted with new and/or expanded patio areas to safely accommodate patrons. I encourage you to contact these establishments before visiting to get the most up-to-date information. I would like to close by paying homage to one of my favorite speakeasies that did not survive the pandemic.
Marvel Bar was located in the bottom of the Bachelor Farmer restaurant. The entrance was a door with a combination lock on it. If you had the moxie to try the door during opening hours, you would have found it unlocked. The cocktails were unique and creative, and the ice was all hand chipped. This was not the place to go if you were impatient to get your drink, however patience was rewarded. The space was small and cozy; it is also the only place where I have seen glass panels at the bottom of the urinals to protect your shoes! Last winter the bar pioneered a menu of dry cocktails, all of which were excellent drinks. It’s disappointing to see such excellent, creative places close permanently. My hope, once the pandemic is over, is that many of these talented folks will create new and even more inspiring venues.