Local Speakeasies

Local Speakeasies

The years 1920-1933 spanned a peculiar time in American history. Thanks to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was strictly prohibited. 

Of course, that didn’t mean people couldn’t get their hands on alcohol. Wealthy people stockpiled it before the 18th Amendment was ratified. “Bathtub gin” and other homemade potables sated the public’s thirst. Liquor was commonly smuggled into the country, and gangsters such as Al Capone made fortunes from the practice. And, if you knew a guy who knew a guy, you could probably find a “speakeasy”: a secret club where liquor was dispensed illegally. Sometimes just cramped rooms, they operated below the radar and were actually
quite profitable.

Speakeasies mostly died out after Prohibition was repealed, but the concept has enjoyed a renaissance throughout the country—albeit as public facilities with retro sensibilities, such as passwords and hidden entrances.

A Special Kind of “Library”

Take the Bookstore Speakeasy, for instance. You’ll have to look sharp for the inconspicuous side door entrance at 336 Adams Street in Bethlehem. Walk past the bookcases, go through the black velvet drapes, and you’ll find yourself in 1929. 

The decor is eclectic, to say the least: mismatched furniture, quaintly varied cocktail glasses, and shelves crammed with old books (some of which are used for discreet menu presentation). Odd pieces of old crystal mingle with the candles and oil lamps that replace the usual electrical overhead lights.

The Bookstore offers small plates like Oysters Rockefeller, Octopus Panzanella Salad, and Duck Confit Salad Sandwiches; the large plate menu spans everything from beef to vegetarian dishes. In the mood for something lighter? Perhaps Black Truffle Fries, Chickpea Popcorn, or a serving of the popular “Amy’s House Made Pickles” will strike your fancy.

The club’s cocktail menu is unusual as well. Many drinks are pleasantly tweaked versions of old favorites: the classic Manhattan morphs into the “Upper Manhattan”—a mix of bourbon, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, plus an orange twist and a brandied cherry. Others are completely new creations, such as “Death in a Bookstore,” concocted from Old Tom gin, Tito’s Vodka, absinthe verte, lemon juice, Angostura bitters, and Prosecco.

They’re crafted by the Bookstore’s trio of bartenders, three professionals that have raised mixology to an art form.

Lead bartender Neil Heimsoth is the go-to guy for finalizing measurements and flavor profiles as well as balancing the proportions of ingredients. Neil likes to start with classic cocktails made from various whiskies and gin, and then play with them, using his expertise to improve on the originals. Fellow bartender Ryan Snyder’s forte is fun and fruity drinks, such as rum-based “tiki” cocktails, while Gabriel Manansala is the high-energy personality behind the bar.

The Prohibition vibe gets even stronger, thanks to rotating groups of musicians that perform several nights a week. Some play authentic jazz from the ’20s and ’30s with traditional instruments like trumpet, tuba, and accordion. Others perform current music, but with throwback arrangements and styles, à la Postmodern Jukebox.

Hush: The Other Side of Roar

Local restaurant legend Don Saylor had been scouting locations for what would become Roar Social House, but stopped when he checked out 732 Hamilton Street in Allentown. “I liked the location because it’s near the PPL Center,” he said. “And when I saw that the building’s back door opened onto Maple Street, I realized it would make a great entrance for a speakeasy. That’s more or less what gave me the idea for a Prohibition theme.”

(Ironically, neighborhood construction issues have prevented using the back entrance so far.)

Stroll through the long narrow restaurant of Roar, make your way past the open kitchen, and you’ll find a little back room called Hush.

“Many people don’t even know it’s there,” says lead bartender Scott Wertz. “It’s dark and cozy, and seats about 30 people.” Although you don’t actually need a password to get in, he suggests that you try “Bette Davis” if you’re challenged.

You’ll find plenty of old-fashioned cocktails on the menu. Saylor sent his bartenders on a research mission to learn what drinks were popular during the ’20s and ’30s, “and they came up with a long list of ingredients and recipes—stuff I’d never heard of, even after 50 years in this business,” he says.

Wentz and his crew are like alchemists—they mix a few drops of this and a splash of that with various liquors and exotic spirits (Frenet Branca, Chartreuse, a variety of absinthes, house made bitters), along with accoutrements such as fresh basil, mint, thyme, egg whites, and cucumbers. (Of course, the less adventurous can always order a Bee’s Knees, made from gin, fresh lemon juice, and honey, or Hush’s variations on the Old-Fashioned, Manhattan, and other classic tipples.)

Food choices emphasize appetizers—flatbreads, pierogies, and spring rolls—but entrées from Roar’s menu are also available.

Wentz said the club mixes old-school ambience (bartenders wear suspenders, ties and long bar aprons) with the 21st century. That’s evidenced by the diverse styles of music Hush offers—guitarists, reggae, and even
a ’90s-hits DJ.

Although he believes the speakeasy trend has peaked, Wentz is confident that its influence will remain. “The style of cocktail production and the drinks themselves and their recipes are here to stay for a good long time. They’ve become part of America’s cocktail lexicon,” he says.

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