Speakeasies were a delightful and dangerous product of Prohibition (1920-1933). During the 13 years where the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages were banned, speakeasies sprouted up everywhere. They funded organized crime as well as created an underground elite culture that may still be evident in the private clubs of today.
Recently a group of my girlfriends and I had an evening at Manifesto, a modern speakeasy in downtown Kansas City, MO. It was a fun and fascinating. We had a high level of anticipation leading up to our reservation. To make a reservation you text a secret number. They then also have an additional process to get in through a back door which makes you feel a bit like a covert spy. All of this hubbub is just icing on our anticipated experience in a 20s style speakeasy.
Manifesto is located in the basement of the Historic Rieger Hotel, now just a great restaurant. Per the website, to access the speakeasy, patrons should head to the back door of the building and buzz the keypad. The host from Manifesto will let you in and then guide you through a small back room, down the narrow stairs(built in 1915!) and into a 100 ft long hallway that is lit one notch up from pitch black. All this built on our anticipation and set the mood for our experience. We come through a curtain to the bar area and were seated a one of seven tables, each only able to seat four to five people. The bar is in the left hand corner as you enter and has an additional five or six seats along it. The whole area is essentially just lit with candles. The decor is dark wood and cream fabrics. The wood trim is wide and has an old fashioned style. There is a large mirror behind the bar helping the space feel bigger than it really is. This total package is the epitome of ambience and adds to the feeling of secrecy and class.
A Brief History: Speakeasies were all hidden and spread by word of mouth. They were frequently in basements with no real markers. They also were discovered by police frequently and yet this was no real deterrent. The public never stopped wanting to drink and have a good time and so the money makers found a way to keep opening up new locations.
Simultaneous with our seating ourselves, our waiter arrived. He is sharply dressed in slacks, a button down, a vest and tie. He has the 20s gangster look going for him. He is charming handsome and extremely knowledgeable about the menu. While the comestibles are few and unimpressive the drinks menu is extensive.
They have plenty of recognizable drinks such as the Manhattan, the Gin Fizz and the Old Fashioned. One of the girls ordered a Manhattan and declared that it is the best Manhattan she has ever had. There just seems to be a more complex flavor that you may usually get if the drink were from a normal bar. They even take care to provide the correct form of ice, a block.
Here is great article about ice. It is dense but seriously informative.
Manifesto also has an extensive selection of original mixed drinks. They feature ingredients that were popular long ago: Angostura Bitters, Wormwood Bitters, Burlesque Bitters, Mole bitters and egg whites. They also have delightful names like, Winters in Buenos Aires, Ward & Precinct, or The Silencer. We were intrigued and had to study the list for quite some times. Excitedly we called out the names and ingredients to one another. With various selections in mind we asked our waiter what he thought of our choices and being a connoisseur our waiter helped sway us to the choices that were best suited to our tastes.
I personally ordered the Winters in Buenos Aires and a Tempest.
The Winters in Buenos Aires list as its ingredients: Velho Barriero Cachaca, Honey, Cinnamon, Lemon, and Roasted Butternut Squash. The roasted butternut squash really caught my attention. I love butternut squash but it is not your typical drink mixer. I have to say what they presented to me was delicious. The honey, cinnamon, and lemon are all sharper familiar flavors that are really set off and broadened by the rounded mellow flavor of the butternut squash. It was just the right amount of savory to help balance the harshness of alcohol, in this case Rum. I was very impressed.
The Tempest is made with the following components: Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, Five-Pepper-Infused Tequila, Lime, Ginger. This was a much harder drink but was still extremely flavorful, pleasing and refreshing. I was also very happy with this concoction.
I finished both drinks which is not my usually habit because I am not big “drinker”. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and had plenty of conversation. We did end up purchasing some nuts and chips. The chips were made from scratch and surprisingly tasty. The atmosphere was special, charmed and inspiring. It charges our spirits two ways. Our mood was happy and chatty and I have never had drinks that tasted so good.
Another Historical Fun Fact: Alcohol during prohibition came from all different sources and the illegality meant there was no regulation on its production. This is why so many mixed drinks were created during the prohibition era, to mask the harsh liquors from who knows where.
Manifesto is more of a speakeasy themed bar. The term speakeasy is now being broadly used for any retro style bar. Many of the more popular modern speakeasies also boast private club areas for their members. Here is a great article for some famous modern speakeasies.