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Don’t ask for directions

If you plan to drink your friends under the table, visit a speakeasy this season. That is, if you manage to find it. For speakeasies are no ordinary watering holes. They are secret bars with no printed addresses or neon signs screaming for attention. To top it all, you need to be armed with a password known to only a few – and which has a very short lifespan. Welcome to the New Age drinking digs that are inspired by speakeasies of the Prohibition Era in 1920s America.

The new wave of speakeasy-themed bars is now a fad globally. New York has a legion of these underground cocktail nooks where you enter through anything from a hot dog joint to a trap door! Now, Indian speakeasies are tweaking the same theme and offering prohibition fare in style.

But the wonders of the modern speakeasy extends far beyond a hideout bar and discreet entrance. The fun begins when you prise open its concealed door and step inside the bar’s clandestine precincts. Artisanal cocktails will greet you along, perhaps, with glamorous hostesses in flapper dresses who puff away through cigarette holders, aiming to emulate Jacqueline Kennedy.

So what if speakeasies are not illegal any more. They are still loads of fun and great places to get high. But don’t ask for directions.

Dirty Martini

What can be more hip than entering a pub through a nondescript back alley and then stealthily making your way through its kitchen? But first you need to say the password. At Dirty Martini, the new bar launched by A.D. Singh at Olive at the Qutub, the opening night brought the era of molls and gangsters alive with an electric performance by saxophonist Simon Hewitt.

“A speakeasy brings to mind a smoky bar with bluesy music, dancing to a jazz combo and aromas of comfort food wafting out from the kitchen,” says Singh, who has combined the ground floor and terrace of the existing Olive Bar & Kitchen to create an atmospheric hideaway.

Indeed, Dirty Martini has all the hallmarks of a speakeasy du jour. So, gin cocktails are served in dainty tea cups embossed with floral prints and cigarette holders with their elegantly slim lights are passed around for a stylish puff.

The proprietors insist that early 20th century Prohibition is central to Dirty Martini’s design. Created by cutting-edge set designer, Sumant Jayakrishnan, both the levels carry forward the speakeasy theme. There’s a grand piano combined with period furniture, pendant lampshades and rough floorboards. But the piece de resistance is the bar with paintings of vintage bird cages, butterflies and blooming roses.

PCO

Pic By Jagan Negi

The only way you will ever find PCO which is hidden away in the shadows of closed shop fronts in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar market is if you know the right people. Patrons invited to check it out when the bar began its covert operations are the ones who are on the inner track about its address and secret password. And yes, the password changes faster than you can say Martini.

The only tip-off to PCO’s presence is a black phone box into which you have to step and key in the password. But do make a dash for the electronic door pronto, for it slams shut within five seconds of punching the code.

“PCO is the acronym for Public Call Office but can also be inter-preted as Pass Code Only,’’ says Radhika Dhariwal, who owns PCO along with Vaibhav Singh and her brother Rakshay.

Pic By Jagan Negi

Not surprisingly, most speakeasy-themed bars are purveyors of well-crafted cocktails inspired by concoctions served in America’s illegal booze retreats. According to Singh, PCO too aims to introduce people to forgotten, classic cocktails of an older era. “So, we are talking about Clover Club, Sazerac, Old Fashioned, Daisies and Cobblers,” he says.

The interiors too take the retro theme seriously. Mismatched furniture competes with vintage telephones, transistors and red telephone box restrooms. What shines out though are posters featuring images of Hollywood legends on call, echoing the bar’s telephone spirit. The décor is enhanced by framed cards with nifty trivia about the stars.

After all, the idea is to help you relate to the legendary Audrey Hepburn whose favourite drink was a Scotch after 6pm — and just as much as a finger length in the glass .

Ellipsis

Ellipsis in Colaba, Mumbai, counts as a speakeasy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its unobtrusive entrance that’s marked by just three dots. Rohan Talwar, founder of IB Hospitality that owns the pub and dining outfit has his own version of the speakeasy: “In my opinion, speakeasies stood for a lot more than a hidden entrance,” he says. Talwar believes the best speakeasies grew into places that stood for exclusivity, sophistication and glamour as a kind of precursor to the modern day ‘private members’ club,” he adds.

In keeping with his vision, he has fashioned Ellipsis as a 4,400sqft space that doubles as a fine dining and cocktail venue created by California-based interior designer Thomas Schoos.

Like most new wave speakeasies around the world, the mixologist is the star here. And Talwar is recreating the ethos of the retro era with an exhaustive bar programme in collaboration with David Kaplan and Alexander Day, owners of the hip cocktail joint Death & Company in New York.

The drinks menu at Ellipsis can actually teleport you to darker times in America when the Volstead Act of 1919 brought an end to nightlife. That’s because Kaplan and Day’s forte lie in reintroducing the fine art of cocktail-making to the world that had been left behind with the introduction of Prohibition.

So, expect classics such as Old Fashioned and Hemingway Daiquiri as well as Day’s signature cocktails including Sham Medicine (in picture) and High Fidelity (passion fruit, Campari and vodka).