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“Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” ~W.C. Fields
The 18th Amendment, which banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol in the United States, was ratified on Jan. 16, 1919.
As a result, drinking in the United States stopped almost completely. Drunk and disorderly behavior went the way of the dodo, crime rates sunk like a turd in a jug and America became an idyllic utopia full of stolid, sober, upright men and women who had finally been saved from that liquid Mephistopheles which had held them captive for so long.
"Is this Heaven?" people were known to ask one another. "No, it's just government-mandated Prohibition" someone would reply, knowingly.
Yeah, I’ve got jokes.
Of course, what really happened is the 18th Amendment created a hugely profitable and violent black market for alcohol where organized crime ran rampant while corrupt law enforcement agencies looked the other way, and otherwise law-abiding citizens were made into de facto criminals.
The drinking continued, unabated, it just went underground, and the speakeasy was born. Underground drinking clubs were everywhere. For every legitimate saloon that was forced to close, a half dozen clandestine establishments sprang up. By midway through "The Roaring Twenties," there were supposedly 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone.
At any given time during Prohibition, Sacramento, one of the "wettest cities in the union" had 200-plus operating speakeasies. I know this, because last Saturday night I went on The Old Sacramento Speakeasy Tour, offered by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership.
I arrived at the River City Saloon 20 minutes before the tour’s scheduled 6 p.m. start. It didn't take long to ascertain who would be guiding the tour. If Shawn Peter’s dapper, striped, not-quite-zoot-suited (But not-quite-not-zoot-suited) appearance wasn't enough to give him away as our fearless leader, the clunky off-white lunchbox (construction worker, not preschooler) sized portable speaker to which he was strapped was.
I introduced myself, and he encouraged me to grab a cocktail while we awaited the rest of the group. I decided on an Irish Coffee, ’cause there had been a sign outside that had said "Irish Coffee" on it, and, apparently, I'm a sheep.
It took me a few minutes to gain the bartender’s attention, so I passed the time by eating peanuts that I found at the bar, because that's what I do to peanuts that I see sitting on bars. Thankfully, the young lady to whom the peanuts belonged was very understanding when she returned to her seat to find a pile of shells in front of me and a half-empty basket in front of her.
By the by, peanuts and Irish Coffees are an awful mix. Just terrible.
At a little after 6 p.m., Shawn gathered us up in the back of the saloon, which, though less than 2 years old, is very reminiscent of how a typical 1920s Sacramento speakeasy would have been.
"Sacramento has always been a drinking town. . ." Shawn began, to assorted hoots and hollers from the gathered throng of about 20 or so men and women, just about all of whom were clutching a drink of some sort. "And it wanted nothing to do with Prohibition."
He went on to give us a brief history of Old Sac and the town’s hate/hate relationship with Prohibition and its total refusal to comply with the federal law.
There was a saying in Prohibition-era Sacramento that "if you couldn't find a drink, you were dumber than a halfwit."
After a fascinating and in-depth (Shawn and partner Mike Munson spent years researching 80-plus-year-old city and police records before beginning to offer tours) history lesson, we left River City and headed around the block to the Speakeasy Lounge, Shawn pointing out locations of interest along the way.
The Speakeasy Lounge is underneath Cafe New Orleans and was an operating speakeasy during Prohibition. It was attached to a series of tunnels that, at the time, went from the waterfront all the way to 12th and J.
Unfortunately, owing to a miscommunication, the bar downstairs was closed. If I had been working, I'd have eschewed the tumbleweeds and crickets in the upstairs dining room for a few minutes in order to fix some cocktails for our raucous group of amateur speakeasy enthusiasts downstairs, but that's just me. I guarantee we would have bought more alcohol in 20 minutes downstairs than they sold upstairs all night.
Did I mention that the Speakeasy Lounge was turned into a dance club in the ’70s, so it mixes a 1920s basement speakeasy setup with 1970s sensibilities (complete with a raised, lighted Plexiglas disco dance floor). When and if it ever opens, (Their "website" is a myspace page that says it's "in" hiatus. I'm not holding my breath) it immediately becomes my favorite bar in Sacramento.
Up next on the tour was the Delta King, which was a floating casino/speakeasy/liquor transport during Prohibition. They used to offer passenger fares to San Francisco. The 10-hour trips would rapidly degenerate into wild parties.
In the ’20s, the bar area would be hidden. Today it is in the Pilothouse, where we mingled with a bunch of hotel residents and visitors eagerly anticipating the Delta King Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre. After a couple of drinks on the Delta King (we had to make up for the aborted trip at the last place), we ventured back out into the dark and stormy night, headed for our final destination of the evening, (and our guide's favorite) the Back Door Lounge.
I'll admit it, this is where my recollection gets a tad fuzzy. I can tell you that it was an operating speakeasy in the ’20s, and it was also a Saltine Cracker Factory. Or maybe it was next to (under? in cahoots with?) a Saltine Cracker Factory. I can tell you that they serve a ridiculously strong cocktail at the Back Door Lounge, and apparently they do a mean breakfast as well.
I can also tell you that if you enjoy a little history with your cocktails, (or a lot of cocktails with your history), you will absolutely love The Old Sacramento Speakeasy Tour. I may do it again next month. I wanna see that dance floor fully operational.