The term “speakeasy” is thrown about quite a bit these days. Odd, in a sense, because the meaning of the word represents Prohibition, when speakeasies were secret drinking places, hidden away, offering an illegal chance to partake. So how has the term suddenly become so popular again?
The term “speakeasy” is thrown about quite a bit these days
I feel like my generation has a coolness gap. I’m old enough to remember hearing about speakeasies, those illicit establishments (also known as blind pigs or blind tigers) selling alcoholic beverages, but too young to have experienced one firsthand.
Now, the speakeasies are back, even if their meaning has changed somewhat. Perhaps it’s an affinity for the past, when even though liquor was hard to find, times were slower and drinking involved camaraderie, conversations, and connection. Now speakeasies reference bars with a retro style—and ones that are usually hard to find as well.
I started to notice a trend in the industry where people were changing consumer habits from quantity to quality
The word “speakeasy” refers to the hushed tones used when telling another about the location. Hushed tones are no longer necessary, but the thrill of finding an out-of-the-way bar can still bring back feelings of the past.
Swordfish Tom’s, located in the Crossroads District in Kansas City, Missouri, is one such place. Owner Jill Cockson says she doesn’t call her bar a speakeasy, but it does have the makings of a unique spot to connect over a craft drink.
Cockson has been bartending for about 20 years. Like a lot of people, she started out bartending as a means to an end through her college years. While working at The Other Room in Lincoln, Nebraska, a Prohibition-style bar offering craft cocktails, Cockson says, “I started to notice a trend in the industry where people were changing consumer habits from quantity to quality. Classic cocktails were coming back. People’s access to information increased as the internet provided people a way to research products. I realized I could create a personal brand for myself by suggesting and learning about the products I was serving.”
The Other Room became Cockson’s inspiration for the bar she wanted to create. She watched and learned about their utilization of a small space. She watched as this progressive (for Lincoln) bar excelled.
We’re here for people who want to have a conversation, stay connected
“People said you can’t do this… We didn’t sell beer or wine, it was all craft cocktails, in a tiny space, and we didn’t cater to the football crowd. But it worked. I had the opportunity to test the theory of someone else. So when I got the opportunity to create a similar concept here, I came to Kansas City,” Cockson says.
While there’s atmosphere aplenty (Swordfish Tom’s is housed in a basement boiler room), Cockson doesn’t see the cocktails or the atmosphere as the most important thing in the room. She says, “We protect an atmosphere that’s conducive to people having memories. I think that’s the most important thing in the room. It’s something the hospitality industry has lost sight of sometimes. We keep it a quiet conversational atmosphere; it’s set up sort of like your living room. It’s casual, which takes the pretentiousness out of the picture. You can rearrange furniture to accommodate different-size groups—it’s literally like a living-room party.”
Of course, they also have a dedication to providing a quality, unique product—everything from the ice, the local spirits, the art of making a drink, to the masterfully made cocktails—but Cockson reiterates that the atmosphere or drinks is not what it’s about. Her brand is protecting the environment for the people.
Hipsters Don’t Have to Be Rude
It takes some searching on your first visit. The street address is on the building, but the door there is not where you’ll find the bar. You’ll need to walk through an alley to find the entrance. Then once inside you’ll traverse old steps down to a waiting room. The waiting room has a few chairs and lights above the door. If the light is green you can come in; if it’s red, they’re at occupancy and you’ll have to wait. Once inside, the huge boiler is the focal point. Then you’ll find the small bar. Gender-neutral restrooms (with no mirrors on the walls) are down a short hall.
Before you order your first drink, though, you’ll want to read the rules. Cash only. No photos. Devices on “silent.” Cell phones: TEXT ONLY. Inside voices, please. And, no hate- or Trump-wear.
Cockson custom-creates the menu and drink choices are limited to what she creates. Take some time to peruse the menu because these are not run-of-mill cocktails. They’re created at a slow pace and should be enjoyed in the same manner. She chooses her spirits based on the company’s business practices. Cockson says there’s one Rum company she won’t use because of the items they put into the ocean. She sources locally as much as possible, but won’t compromise quality to keep it local. Every bottle is custom-picked to her criteria.
When asked about her strict rules, Cockson says, “This isn’t going to be the bar for everybody. But the people who do come in appreciate that we’re taking a stance. We’re saying if you don’t have respect for everyone in the room, then this isn’t your place.
“Why, when you’re at a bar, should you have to scream at your buddy when he’s right in your face? We’ve lost as a culture a consciousness of the people around us. I mean, hey, it’s cool that you’re having a good night, but the people around you want to have a good night, too. When you’re monopolizing the room, it affects other people. So we’re bringing that back front and center—be conscious of how you’re impacting other people around you.”
She goes on, “We’re here for people who want to have a conversation, stay connected. Maybe there’s a couple wanting to keep their marriage together. Or maybe they’re getting away from their kids. Or maybe it’s a business conversation…
“An event that really affected me was when a friend was terminally ill and I wanted to take her out. It dawned on me that it might be the last time we see each other. That was kind of the elephant in the room. So we never know why people are going out. I think many times our industry assumes that everyone is going out for fun. That’s not always the case.”
Cockson says she lucked into finding the location in a synchronistic manner.
“It’s a completely weird serendipity story. I was familiar with Kansas City but a lot had changed since I lived here. I had been coming back and forth scoping locations. On my way back to Lincoln one day, I stopped at a gas station and I saw this guy at the station and his face sort of registered with me that he’s not from Nebraska.
“Later on that night the same guy came into The Other Room when I was working there. Like me, he had also been driving from Kansas City to Lincoln. When he came up to the bar to order I said, ‘Hey, I saw you in Nebraska City today.’ That kinda weirded him out a little bit. But as it turned out he was an architect from Kansas City in town judging an architecture competition. He loved The Other Room and the space. When I told him I was looking to potentially replicate it in Kansas City, he immediately was excited.
“‘I’m working with people about their properties, let me show you some spaces.’ He showed me a different part of this building first, it was kind of a boring part of the basement, but a couple weeks later he called me back and said, ‘Hey, we realized there’s an old boiler room in that building.’ It was actually spaced he didn’t even realize existed. Originally, it was supposed to be boarded up and walled off. He asked if I’d like to come take a look.
“It was dark and disgusting. The boiler was wrapped in asbestos. It was a coal room, a boiler room, so it was disgusting and covered in coal soot. As soon as I saw the boiler, I said ‘that’s cool.’”
Cockson brought in a team to renovate and the rest is, like the term “speakeasy,” history. “The room tells its own story.”
If you’d like to step back in time and experience history, you can learn more about Swordfish Tom’s on Facebook.