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Why alcohol-free bars are New York’s hottest new night out

Simon Calder’s Travel

The law that banned the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol in the US came into force in 1920, but instead of stopping people drinking, it merely sent them underground. For 13 long years, it was like whack-a-mole for the authorities; no sooner had they shut down one secret bar than another one sprung up overnight.

While many of these “speakeasy” bars – so named because you had to whisper a password to gain entry – were drab pop-ups in tenement buildings that served alcohol cut with formaldehyde and small taverns in upstate towns, city-centre hotspots were swanky, with the hushed sound of live jazz, plenty of shoulder shimmying and more than a whiff of organised crime.

A hobbyist historian with a passion for the interwar years, I booked myself on a speakeasy walking tour on a recent trip to New York.

Here, I learned about New York City’s most successful speakeasy owner; a woman by the name of Texas Guinan who was nicknamed Queen of the Night for her power over the city’s nightlife. Protected by, and in cahoots with, notorious bootlegger Owney ‘The Killer’ Madden, she was famed for her rebellious nature, exorbitant prices, outrageous entertainment and an uncanny knack of evading police raids.

Alcohol-free bars and events are popping up all over NYC

( Sasha Charoensub/Listen Bar)

Although I made new friends from Long Island, Australia and Vancouver on the tour as we crawled from bar to bar, I came away with an early evening hangover and a sense of unease. It all felt a bit – dare I say – bogus.

From chats with bartenders in the following days, it seems that, even in my Woo-Woo-infused haze, I was on to something. Speakeasies are a divisive topic among New Yorkers these days; while for visitors, there’s a romanticism around their history and secrecy, for locals they are sometimes seen as gimmicky.

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I asked Lorelei Bandrovschi, founder of Listen Bar for the locals’ view. She says: “It’s mixed. The concept of a speakeasy isn’t as trendy as it was a few years ago, although some speakeasies like PDT are icons in the bar world and have retained fans among locals.”

JW Wiseman, founder of Curious Elixirs and sober speakeasy Club Curious, says that if they’re on Google Maps, they’re’re not a speakeasy. “There are almost no real speakeasies left; they’re all bars pretending…

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