Photos by Kenzie Busekist
Having been around since the 1800s, speakeasies are taking on a whole new meaning.
No one would think twice about this random black door. It’s stuck on the side of a restaurant, like a service entrance. It’s covered in chipped paint. There are no signs.
Behind it, though, is a secret. I give a gentle push. It creaks open. I step inside. Snarling punk rock wafts up from below me.
There’s a staircase leading down. At the bottom of the stairs, buzzing neon red tubes read “We are your shepherds.” Pungent incense fills the small basement space. The whole place smells of earthy musk. A bar decorated with gothic art and lit only by candles is off to my left. A DJ booth — which proudly features a sign that reads “No f*****g requests” — sits opposite the bar. Welcome to Black Sheep.
Black Sheep is a speakeasy bar in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. Owner Frankie Fratto says the reasoning behind Black Sheep is to give people the unexpected, allowing them to enter “something that completely changes your outlook on nightlife.”
“This project was essentially not really geared towards a speakeasy at first,” Fratto says. “It was more of a reaction to the current climate of nightlife and the fact that there was not a lot of progress that we could see around us that had a soul. We kind of transformed into this social experiment, so to say.”
Speakeasies didn’t start as a social experiment. They started to fill Americans’ desire for booze during Prohibition. According to John Mariani, author of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, speakeasies derived from the English “spoke-softly shops,” a.k.a. smugglers’ homes where illegal alcohol was provided. People often came to speakeasies to forget about their day-to-day problems and release their pent up inhibitions. They supplied the “deviant” culture people craved during Prohibition.
“In order to gain entrance, you had to speak in a low voice through a small opening in the back door and tell the attendant inside who sent you to the place,” Mariani says.
Today, things are a little different. Cops aren’t trying to shut down secret dens of iniquity. Instead, speakeasies attract folks looking for something authentic and private. Which begs the question: What even is a speakeasy today?
According to Fratto, the definition is broad.
“A speakeasy is essentially just a word people use for something that is not that accessible,” says Fratto. “It’s not mass-market appeal; it’s not mass-market accessibility. It’s something to find or seek out. It’s something you have to hear by word of mouth or on the street.”
That said, word of mouth branches onto the world wide web. Black Sheep, for example, has an active Facebook with nearly 2,000 likes. But even in the digital realm of the 21st Century, speakeasies still maintain an exclusive atmosphere. Calleigh O’Connor, an avid speakeasy-goer, says they no longer represent criminality, but still provide a similar atmosphere.
“The speakeasies I have been to have all been dark, mysterious and many had a very vintage feel to them,” O’Connor says. “Quite a few I have been to request that no one use their cell phones and have a dress code. It seems like a certain crowd comes to speakeasies – not as rowdy and ‘bro-y’ as many bars.”
Owners like Fratto often see speakeasy culture as a subversive art form, not meant to please the common bargoer. Many aren’t even crafted in hopes of making large amounts of money. Instead, these bars are seen as dark yet beautiful experiences, not only by their owners but by their clientele as well.
“It does not feel like reality,” O’Connor says, “almost like you are stepping into a time machine into Prohibition, and there is something very intriguing and almost sexy about that.”