The caramel kindness of Scotch lingers wistfully in a glass just an ice cube short of perfection. A tightly rolled leaf revels in the fissure between an anxious thumb and patient index finger. The diamond reflections of competing bottles disrupt the room, a room made dark by the absence of windows, and yet light in the company of commonality. A piano’s chords dance softly around the room, quiet to the world, yet boisterous in the glow of immunity.
The speakeasy is back. Freed of the constraints of prohibition, and enlightened by a century of mythology, the public house of privacy has inundated the enlightenment, and informed the aesthetic of the contemporary bar. Where once speakeasies were clandestine dives fuelled by inferior spirits, current incarnations are upscale establishments that marry the character of the turn of the century tavern with the needs of the nouveau clientele.
Today’s speakeasy is a place that appropriates the style of the past, provides solace for simple vices, and caters to contemporary desires. But the influence of the speakeasy isn’t seen simply in remodelled pubs and converted bistros, but in the culture that it both serves and impacts. In fact, the speakeasy isn’t a bi-product of a culture; it’s the culture itself.
Speakeasies were born of prohibition, usually dive public houses, hidden from the world, trading in bootlegged spirits and embracing the bootlegger spirit. They were the ultimate embodiment of liberty; they eschewed societal and political norms in the name of profit and protest. Speakeasies were socially advanced, as well, encouraging the business of women to increase sales. They were everything the establishment would not allow people to be. They were a movement, a mode to fight oppression with a good drink and a fine smoke.
Etymologically, speakeasy is derived from “speak-easy”, in reference to keeping the existence of the illegal watering holes quiet. A parallel can be found in the manner in which we discuss the instruments of the establishments, whisky and cigars, contributors to and results of the culture itself. When vices are frowned upon and legislated against, we often keep our affections for such things hushed. Discretion is the better part of valour, or perhaps liquor. But the speakeasy culture has provided solace for our vices, and comfort for our customs—a liberation of indulgence.
Ontario has been an important character in the evolution of the speakeasy culture, especially given its history with whisky. In the prohibition era, the Windsor-Detroit border was a well-travelled route for smugglers. Hiram Walker still distils Canadian Club in Windsor, an international brand. As the modern day desire for quality spirits and investing in the local have grown, so too have the region’s contributions to the industry.
Where once whiskies by definition were both legislated and restricted to region, the new speakeasy culture has been accompanied by a looser attachment to the regulatory spirit of distilling. Craft distillers have been opening up beyond the Scottish moors, away from the Kentucky limestone, and oceans from Irish peat. Small outfits have been producing high quality spirits all across Ontario, and their scotches, whiskies, and ryes are some of the best in the world, with an affection for quality and little attachment to geography.
Ontario is becoming world renowned for craft producers like the family-run Rheault, Dixon, and Dillon distilleries, 66 Gilead and Still Water distilleries, and North of 7. The Toronto Distillery Co. still embraces the prohibition-era spirit, launching a constitutional challenge against unfair taxation. While all of these producers are celebrated for their contributions to the industry, their spirits are contributing to defining Ontario as the centre of the speakeasy culture.
But the culture is not just about whisky. What is a good drink without a better cigar? What vision of a 1920s speakeasy isn’t clouded by rich plumes of cigar smoke filling windowless rooms? The realization of the revitalization of the speakeasy culture would not be complete without quality cigars, and Ontario has found ambitious and creative ways to contribute to that realization—even as we teeter on the edge of tobacco prohibition, a romantic nod to the age of which the speakeasy culture was born. But the cigar is not about addiction, but rather attachment to indulging in exoticism, in leaving the day behind to savour the fruits of its sacrifice, to be uninhibited by nannyism and reward ourselves for our accomplishments. It represents the very lifeblood of the speakeasy culture.
The cigar is an attachment to an era of freedom, when a moment of vice was absent of secular moralism. Village Cigar Company & Barbershop of Burlington is the very substance of the speakeasy, more a gentleman’s community centre than a tobacconist. It is the absolute essence of the culture, an aesthetic time machine of modern conveniences and quality cigars. One could picture Capone himself in the barber’s chair, an unlit cigar in his hand begging for a light, a timid barber delicately taking a straight razor to his leathered jowls.
But VCC&B is not the only throwback in town. Establishments like Havana Castle Cigars and Laly’s Smoke Shop freckle the region, and trade in the acumen and sophistication befitting any aficionado. Much like the small batch whisky producers, these specialty tobacconists are living, breathing anachronisms that peddle both tradition and modernity, built on an understanding of the past but a respect for the present.
What’s most rewarding about the speakeasy culture is that it is born of community. It does not subscribe to the big box model, but rather borrows from the farmers’ market, the general store, and the town hall. It is local in its practice, and universal in its practicality. Perhaps this is why it has found its centre in Hamilton’s and Burlington’s, communities of communities, metropolises that fold into one another, that share both histories and aspirations. The small batch distilleries and cigar shops that populate Ontario are essential contributors to a new culture born of old, facilitators of the day’s perfect end, in need of only a good glass and a light.