Setting up a speakeasy bar just requires a few simple ingredients – and a secret password, of course.
Cocktails during the Prohibition era featured plenty of fruit juices and sweeteners to mask the harsh bite of spirits, which were often illegally made. Poor-quality, homemade liquors like bathtub gin and moonshine were drinkable only with super flavorful mixers. Floral components and other aromatics also served to disguise the smell of liquor if the police showed up to the party.
Skip the sketchy spirits and you can still set up a speakeasy bar with these popular cocktail ingredients from the 1920s.
- Gin – While you don’t have to make it in your bathtub, gin is the most important element of any speakeasy bar. Hate the taste? Sub in vodka instead, even though this easy-drinking liquor (along with rum and tequila) didn’t make it big in America until after World War II.
- Whiskey – Opt for American whiskey made from rye, which gives the liquor spicy and fruity nuances. Prefer your spirits sweet and heavy? Bourbon is a good stand-in.
- Green Chartreuse – This feisty, pale green liqueur lends an Art Deco vibe to any cocktail. Made by French monks since 1737, the spirit features a blend of 130 herbs, flowers, and plants.
- Vermouth – Highly aromatic, vermouth is a must in popular prohibition era cocktails like the martini and the Manhattan. It’s a fortified wine made from botanicals like tree bark, flowers, and seeds. Both versions – sweet and dry – were quite popular in the 1920s.
- Elderflower Liqueur – No modern speakeasy bar is legit without a bottle of St. Germaine elderflower liqueur. Its sweet, floral flavor wakes up cocktails with the fresh taste of summertime.
Fruits, Florals, and Aromatics
- Fresh Citrus – Lemons, limes, and oranges are essential components of a speakeasy bar for their juice as well as their rinds. Add brightness with juice and color with the zest. Roll a strip of peeling into a spiral for extra style points.
- Bitters – Bitters are necessary to balance out all of that tart fruit juice and heavy sweeteners. Originally used as medicine, bitters are a blend of botanical matter and alcohol. Choose orange bitters if you can find them for your vintage cocktail drinks.
- Fresh Herbs – Perk up your punch with a garnish of brilliant green spearmint, ideal for covering the smell of alcohol in the drink (and on your breath if you eat it afterward). Add a spring of rosemary for a vibrant, unique flavor.
- Simple Syrup – Made by dissolving sugar in heated water and then cooling, simple syrup is a quick way to sweeten any drink.
- Honey – The use of honey in cocktails was considered exotic in the Prohibition era, when most drinks called for sugar syrup or sugar rims. But its floral aroma works perfectly to disguise strong liquors. Try a “Bee’s Knees” for a vintage honey cocktail.
- Grenadine – Cherry syrup, or just plain cherry juice, was used in drinks like Ward 8 to complement (and stand up to) strong whiskey flavors. Maraschino cherries are also great for garnishes.
- Sugar – Add a sugar circle around the lip of your glass by moistening the rim and dipping it in a small plate full of sugar. Use turbinado sugar if you can – the golden crystals are perfect for vintage drinks.
- Egg Whites – Whipped egg whites make cocktails creamy and rich with a frothy top. They don’t add much in the way of flavor, but the foam provides a luxurious mouthfeel that many people like.
- Champagne – Feel just like Gatsby when you pop open a bottle of Champagne. A good option for light drinkers, Champagne is also used in many bubbly cocktails (like the French 75). Go for Prosecco or California sparkling wine if you don’t want to break your budget.
- Seltzer or Club Soda – You’ll also need a basic mixer for cocktails like the Gin Rickey and the South Side Fizz, Al Capone’s favorite drink.
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