Speakeasies: Blind pigs might fly

By Jessica Mason contact

- Last updated on GMT

Barts: 'London's worst kept secret'
Barts: 'London's worst kept secret'
The term speakeasy is being abused. That bar is not illegal. Its selection of whiskies is not bootlegged. It is loosely citing the Prohibition era and it is telling its customers a few tales. But they like it and they’re coming back for more.

We need to settle this once and for all.

There are always the Nathan Barleys who think it is kooky to sip smoked spirits from jam jars and mismatched bone china, but it’s just a revolt.

They want a life so badly; they don’t care if it’s a made-up tea party.

These days, ‘speakeasy’ is used to describe anywhere that uses secrecy as a marketing tool and all too often this is even irrespective of whether it is a clandestine venue in any way at all. This makes some of us a bit cynical about the trend.

It’s almost enough to put you off your molecular cocktail. Almost.

In business terms though, there are a few things that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Firstly, the consumers’ yearning for anything should never be neglected. Consider for a moment the irrepressively popular Mojito – ditch the pride and look at the margins that have been made just from riding a trend. Just because, nowadays, it’s more about faded grandeur in a darkened basement that gets people relaxing their purse strings, it’s not the time to be aloof. Speakeasy-style venues continue to thrive, even though most people are aware they are being played by a concept. Do they care when they’re having so much fun? Not really.

The reinvention of speakeasy culture has a lot to do with the consolidation of the high street and consumer’s frantic search for originality. With any trend that sticks around for a while, it has to be making money. It has to point blank refuse to be quashed and be relegated as a fad. Indeed, it can be tiresome but, sometimes, we need to hang up our preconceptions and consider the business merits of just getting amongst it.

Backin5Minutes

“Value is no longer measured by how big or obvious you are,” says Stuart Langley, founder of The Disappearing Dining Club, which runs Back in 5 Minutes, a 28-seater restaurant in the back of a clothes shop on Brick Lane, East London.  

“Look at Tesco. Look at M&S. It used to be that getting the right location on the right high street with a big enough window might be enough to generate success, but that is no longer the case,” he explains, pointing out that, these days, “people increasingly measure value by reputation and quality, and are prepared to change their habits to find the good stuff” which means “people are prepared to buy a ticket for dinner party instead of making a booking at a restaurant, they are happy to walk down a dark alley to find the place they read about.” It also means, reminds Langley, that “when food, drink [and] restaurants saturate the media, there is still a demand for ‘that great little place’ that you know and your friends and colleagues don’t.”

If he’s right, that’s big news. A viable way of marketing the previously unmarketable. It’s the key to all of the lost city spaces, tucked behind corridors and downstairs. It means the play is more for postcode than for palpable location.

But where did it start, and why? According to Inception Group co-founder Charlie Gilkes, who has six sites: three in Chelsea, one in Battersea, one in Mayfair, one in Soho and is due to open its seventh site in early 2015 in central London, the boom across the hospitality industry over the past five years “with new bars, restaurants and cafes opening daily” has resulted in people becoming “a bit spoilt for choice” and now many are “no longer just popping to the ‘local’ to meet people, but instead becoming increasingly keen to visit new and quirky destination bars and venues with a difference.”

Bump Caves North neon sign

“Drinking an amazing cocktail in a place you know little about before you enter is exciting,” agrees Charlie McVeigh, founder of The Draft House and Bump Caves. But something has to lead people there. It needs to give them the wink and foster the idea that ‘hidden’ means ‘good’ and that’s where operators need to be most clever. That casual hint of what you might be missing out on is not the same as being told where to go or what to do. It doesn’t desperately shout “great cocktails”. Instead, it whispers: “You will never know how compelling these drinks are unless you seek them out.” It says, “I’ve seen the emperor’s new clothes and, boy, does he have swag”.

OPEN SECRETS

In terms of dropping subtle hints, technology can do the talking for us. Social media allows us all to flirt with the idea of discovering something without needing to have seen it on the side of a bus.

The trick has largely been to give just the right amount of information away and let people’s innate curiosity do the rest. The words: “Can you keep a secret?” are, hilariously, the starting point for most gossip.

barts sign

Of all of the Inception Group’s venues, the two that are the most clandestine are Barts - a hidden speakeasy style bar, located on Sloane Avenue, and Mr Fogg’s - a Victorian themed bar, situated on Bruton Lane in Mayfair.

Barts was the first venue Inception Group opened. Hidden within the back of a 1920s style apartment block, behind an inconspicuous black door, it sports just a very small sign on a golden plaque to signify its presence. Once through the first black door, guests ring the bell to alert a member of staff to open a hatch, whereupon visitors are asked for the correct password before entering.

“The fact that Barts is hidden, is integral to the entire concept and also to the bar’s notorious tag line, ‘London’s worst kept secret’,” says Gilkes pointing out that he never notes the address on marketing material, but instead writes: ‘Somewhere on Sloane Avenue’ which plays a part in people wanting to seek it out.

“Barts has also allowed us to create a fictional character, Uncle Bart, who is a bootlegger, and therefore always inviting trusted guests only through the door, under the nose of the local coppers, to enjoy some of his secret, new home-brewed booze and moonshine mixes,” says Gilkes, playfully. And it seems, we all love a tall tale.

SPINNING A YARN

This is the strength of Inception Group’s charm – being great at telling stories. So much so that other people will want to retell them. Is it any different from a fairytale? Not much really.

With Mr Fogg’s, although the bar is not a typical 1920’s style speakeasy, it is still hidden down a rather dark and untrodden lane, surrounded only by loading bays and car parks.

Mr Fogg's

“Its unusual location, especially for a Mayfair-based bar, combined with the building’s understated façade, means that to those that don’t know that it is there it comes across as more of a deserted house, than a bar. As a result, few people travel to Mr Fogg’s without having been told about it first, or being invited, and this is something that our marketing focuses on quite heavily,” explains Gilkes.

“With Mr Fogg’s we always treat the bar as a residence, to which Mr Fogg or his household staff will personally invite people. Examples of this can be seen in everything from our events flyers, that ‘cordially invite’ people to one off events, to the confirmation emails from Mr Fogg’s ‘secretary’, that guests are sent when booking,” says Gilkes suggesting that the covert vernacular helps add to the feeling of the bar being a hidden gem.

The shop that the restaurant Back in 5 Minutes is based behind stays open (Wed-Sat every week from 6.30pm), and so guests walk through the shop, behind a curtain and down some stairs into the dining room. Guests are seated around three communal tables and, otherwise, it works just like a normal restaurant – “we take walk-ins, bookings and there is an a la carte menu that changes every day,” says Langley.  But the restaurant’s lack of visibility, rather than being a downfall as some might imagine is actually its selling point.

“The hidden nature of the room is our marketing – it lends itself to becoming a word of mouth recommended place and has become an ‘open secret’.  Everyone’s welcome, you just have to know that we are there,” says Langley.

JUXTAPOSITIONING

Old.Tom.and.English

According to Maria Constantinou - co-founder with her brother Costas of clandestine Soho, London based venues the Soho Arts Club and Old Tom and English, speakeasy styled venues work best in busy urban areas, because the juxtaposition between what is ‘known’ and ‘obvious’ on the street contrasting with what is ‘secluded’ and ‘underground’ is incredibly appealing for visitors who want to show they really know an area.

“Secrecy lends itself best when it’s in a very cosmopolitan bustling area, a place where others don’t know, only the few who are creative enough to appreciate its discretion,” says Constantinou, reminding that “marketing must be quite indirect in order for guests to respect its secrecy,” but that is part of the game: “People always love stories, especially in a city steeped in history, people love to escape into something else, take a different role and appreciate another time.” 

DIFFERING ERAS

Bump Caves, a dive bar and distillery in Bermondsey, has been “inspired by the late 1960s countercultural movement, with books such as Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; new and exciting forms of music that had never before been experienced; and hallucinogenic drugs,” says McVeigh.

Backbar at Bump Caves
Bump Caves spirit rectification

“We have our own rotary evaporator, which allows us to capture almost any flavour and infuse it into spirits,” he explains describing how this results in a selection of unique cocktails, as well as what he terms “Bumps” short spirit drinks to be paired with craft beer, which is Draft House’s specialty.
“In terms of cocktails, the days of two-for-one sweet cocktails at happy hour has passed. Drinking is (and has been) heading towards much more experiential activity. People are ultimately looking for something a little out of the ordinary,” says McVeigh.

“I think the rise of food and wine pairings has really helped customers understand that there are so many interesting things you can do,” says McVeigh, and this is where he really hits the nail on the head as he spells it out: “People are looking for an experience, they aren’t just looking to get drunk. They want to experience flavours; they want to be taken somewhere interesting with their cocktail. Customers are realising that there is no ‘one’ way to create a drink. [For instance, Bump Caves serves drinks with white chocolate, a coconut e-cigarette, parmesan – it mixes things up and morphs drinks into something unusual].” 

Plus, he reminds, there’s a bit of a naughty element to things too, which makes people feel they are involved in something that flies under the radar of what’s allowed in a standard bar.

IRREVERENCE

Bump-Caves-The-Electric-koo

“Bump has these cheeky references to drugs like the EKAAT (Electric Kool Aid Acid Test cocktail, served with a 9v battery to lick and a baggy with homemade ‘acid’ to pour in),” this, he hints gives it “a slightly irreverent feel”.

But won’t we all become a bit cynical soon?

Will these trends date?

Will we still be drinking in a dimly lit room amidst the puff of dry ice?

What will we be drinking throughout the next five years?

“Gin obviously,” says Langley. “Built cocktails like Negronis and Spritzes [and] anything that can have the word ‘craft’ added to it will also remain popular.” Constantinou agrees that gin continues its revival and also notes that classic drinks will never go out of fashion in stylish bars.

EXPANSION

How do we know the trend is thriving?

Operators in this field are all continuing to eye new sites for expansion and there are bigger plans afoot.

Constantinou is considering taking things stateside and has been looking at a site in New York. McVeigh, whose latest opening – the Draft House Birdcage on Columbia Road, says “never say never” and at the new site already has things in place to serve up a new line of Optic cocktails created by his distiller and rectifier Max Chater.

Gilkes, who recently opened Beaver Lodge, a new cabin bar and dance saloon based on the winter cowboy log cabins agrees there’s still plenty of scope for developing new concepts in London. While Langley builds interest among revelers in Ibiza and throws parties in big cities to generate a buzz.

Don’t overlook it. That unmarked door could lead to a goldmine.

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