Why is Mexico City Fascinated with Speakeasies?

Patrons gathered around a bar drinking and talking
The wildly popular Jules Basement is now synonymous with Mexico City's unabashed fascination with Prohibition-era speakeasy concepts.

The term “speakeasy” is used loosely these days; once referring to illicit, underground bars and shops that served liquor secretly during the Prohibition era in the United States, the word has lost almost all of its historical and cultural context. Now, “speakeasy” is mostly applied to bars that are “secret” only out of a sense of manufactured cool, not out of the necessity of evading the law. And it's also applied to bars beyond America's borders. Liquor-loving globetrotters can find speakeasies in practically every corner of the world, from Athens to Zagreb.

They can also find speakeasy-inspired bars in Mexico City, where a decade-long fascination with America's Prohibition era seems to be coming to a head. Mexico did play a key role in that period of U.S. history, serving as the source of much of the liquor that continued to flow in the United States, albeit underground, as well as a destination for Americans who could afford to travel and tipple abroad. But its own bars did not disappear during this era; in fact, they flourished. The country's cantina culture, which had been nurtured since at least the late 1800s, was booming in the 1920s and '30s as prudish Americans worried about alcohol's contribution to all sorts of social ills. In this context, the popularity of speakeasy-style bars among Mexicans is especially interesting.

One of the first speakeasy-style spots in the Mexican capital was Zinco Jazz Club, which opened in the spring of 2005 in the city's Centro Histórico neighborhood. Zinco is literally underground, set in what was once the basement vault of a bank. All burgundy velvet stage curtains and dark wood, the spare decor evokes an earlier, simpler age, and when I first went there in 2007, a sign reading “Solo para los conocedores” — “Only for those in the know” — reinforced the idea that the now well-known Zinco was intended to be a sort of secret spot. “The fact that you had to pass through a red curtain before arriving in the basement with its small stage for jazz and the bar... it all felt, if not clandestine, like something hidden and almost secret,” says Diego Le Provost, the co-owner of El Patio 77, an eco-B&B in the Colonia San Rafael neighborhood. Today, Zinco is in guidebooks and the nightlife section of magazines. It announces its upcoming live music performance on — what else? — Facebook.

The desire to seem illicit and thus secret while attempting to attract a steady, growing stream of loyal patrons is a dynamic that's complicated by the fact that hardly anything can remain concealed anymore. Take Jules Basement, for example. When the subterranean bar opened in 2012 in the basement of La Surtidora, a restaurant in the Polanco neighborhood, the Jules team was initially at pains to project speakeasy cool. Restaurant staff pretended not to know that there was anything at all behind the refrigerator door (which concealed a set of stairs) set into the wall between the dining room and the kitchen, though the comings and goings of bar patrons would eventually become an annoyance as servers attempted to run the kitchen-to-dining-room gauntlet with hot or dirty plates.

One September night during that same year, a friend and I rapped at the door and it opened slowly, a host with a clipboard feigning aloofness by asking if we had a reservation, which was (and still is) required. The jig was up when we got downstairs: besides the bartender, we were the only people at the bar. Three years later, there's hardly anything secret about Jules, which has its own website (with a “press” section, no less) where prospective patrons can request a reservation. It is, of course, recommended on TripAdvisor (a fact that's also duly noted on the website, complete with the familiar TA owl-eyes icon) and rated on Yelp. Thousands of Foursquare users have checked in here, much to the annoyance of one commenter, who, after checking in himself during a 2013 visit, complained that “When you check in at a place like this, you kill its exclusivity, the enigmatic aspect of going to this type of place....”

Perhaps the cranky commenter has moved on. Over the past two years, several speakeasy-style bars have opened in Mexico City, and more are on the way. There's Artemisia, specializing in absinthe, which itself has the whiff of lo prohibido but is perfectly legal, and Parker & Lenox, whose jazz sessions and sepia-toned promotions would speak wholly to an earlier era... were they not posted on Facebook. Reservations are also required for these spots, though patrons at the on-site restaurant at Artemisia may receive an invitation to join the in-crowd.

Coming soon is Hanky Panky, whose bar program will be managed by Berit Jane Soli-Holt, formerly of Felina, itself frequently described as “discreet,” meaning you'd likely walk right past it... if there wasn't so much buzz about it. Soli-Holt, who is from the U.S., says she has found Mexicans' fascination with speakeasies to be, well, fascinating. She describes Hanky Panky — whose online presence is limited, thus far, to preview snaps on Instagram posted by herself and Mike Martin, one of the owners (another anchor owner is Walter Meyenberg) — as “another speakeasy-type bar,” one that will, no doubt, be checked into, rated, and reviewed online as soon as its doors open.

What's likely to make Hanky Panky stand out from the ever-expanding field of Mexico City speakeasies—or what may push other players on the scene to rethink the whole notion of what a speakeasy is in an age when every cocktail is Instagrammed and nothing is secret—is the fact that it will be membership-based. Impossible to keep most places clandestine (though truly clandestine bars do exist in Mexico City, their locations changing as either the public—or the authorities—become too tipped to them), the 21st-century speakeasy's patrons might only be able to be limited by a card confirming their membresía.

The fee, Soli-Holt says, will be nominal, its intent aimed primarily at ensuring staff can give “customers prime information and education on the cocktails, their history, and about the people that make them.” The membership is “more about fine-tuning a level of hospitality of the highest measure. Since we have a list of members, we can cater to their specific likes and dislikes.” Soli-Holt, who will be working alongside general manager Ricardo Sandoval, winner of World Class Mexico 2014, intends to bring in a rotating cast of the capital's best bartenders and mixologists, each of whom will work one night a week and, in exchange, will receive partial ownership in the venture.

If successful, perhaps Soli-Holt and the Hanky Panky partners will be able to do what no modern-day speakeasy has been able to thus far: immerse patrons in such a memorable moment that they won't even remember to check-in.

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