History of Austin

How Austin's boozy history uncorked a modern-day speakeasy movement

How Austin's boozy history uncorked a modern-day speakeasy movement

Garage cocktail bar Austin downtown drink
Garage's speakeasy style has historical roots. Garage/Instagram

Believing that alcohol caused societal ills like drunkenness, mental illness, crime, and poverty, the United States Congress implemented the 18th Amendment (commonly referred to as the Volstead Act) on January 16th, 1919, officially outlawing alcohol in the United States.

Between 1920 and 1933, it was illegal to manufacture, transport, and sell alcoholic beverages (though consuming it was still legal) anywhere in the country, leading to some innovative ways to find booze.

In Austin, local proprietors did everything from sell fake beer to use fake doors to deliver alcohol. Though it was impossible to know at the time, the cocktail culture created during Prohibition is still alive in Austin today, from speakeasies to craft cocktail.

Prohibition begins
Once the amendment became law, bootlegging — the making and selling of homemade alcohol — began. Along with whiskey and moonshine, spirits were pedaled through back alleys, speakeasy clubs, prescribed by medical doctors, and sometimes sold in drug stores.

Moonshine and bathtub gin, as it was called, often had a harsh taste which some covered with innovative ingredients. The homemade hooch made some people ill, while others were poisoned to death. The era also was noted for an increase in crime lords and gangsters rampant especially in urban settings.

As Prohibition was unfolding across the nation, Austin was officially part of the national temperance movement, but some spots managed to respond to the new laws in a creative manner.

An alcohol-free Austin
Scholz's Bier Garten, now located near UT’s campus, was established in 1886, making it is the first restaurant in Austin and the oldest operating business in the state of Texas. (Also among its superlatives is the oldest German beer garden in the country.) During the ban, Scholz's sold food and created a dry beer — appropriately named Bone Dry — to counteract the funds being lost behind the bar. 

Meanwhile downtown, The Tavern on 12th Street and Lamar Boulevard found, ahem, more creative ways to buck Prohibition’s laws. Now, a beloved piece of old Austin, the building was constructed in 1916, making it brand-new during the booze ban.

The Tavern originally served as a grocery store, but the upstairs portion was converted to a speakeasy and brothel during Prohibition. (And, according to legend, may still be home to a Prohibition-era ghost.) Following the repeal the 18th Amendment, the building became a steakhouse in 1933. Today, the place serves as a sports bar, and was recently purchased by the owners of Esther's Follies (and former owners of the Tavern) with the stated intention of maintaining an old Austin vibe.

The Driskill Hotel, opened in 1866, and now the oldest operating hotel in the city, found its own way to circumvent the law, one that is still used today. On the second floor, under the stained-glass dome, is a bronze sculpture. To the right of the statue, guests can see the outer edges of a visible door that was believed to have transported liquor to the gentleman's cigar club. "We find it likely this is what [the door] was used for," says Karli Sullivan, marketing manager for the hotel. The secret speakeasy is now the Citadel Club, which hosts meetings and events.

The move to repeal
Eventually, Austinites (and Americans in general) tired of their fake beer and secret doors. As more Americans became outraged at the 18th Amendment, the fury extended to politicians, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ran his campaign promising that if elected he would repeal the Volstead Act. Roosevelt won in a landslide and the act was repealed. When Prohibition was formally repealed on December 5th, 1933, President Roosevelt announced it was a good time for a beer.

Today's Prohibition-style Austin
During the booze ban, saloons were outlawed, giving rise to private clubs, often called “speakeasies.” They acquired the nickname due to the fact that before entering a customer had to whisper the password to enter. 

Today, Austin is home to numerous speakeasy-inspired bars such as Garage, which is housed in an attendant booth inside the parking garage at 503 Colorado St. This hidden gem is difficult to locate, but imminently worth the hunt.

The Red-Headed Stepchild is another secret lounge in downtown Austin at 119 E. Fifth St. Located inside of a building marked Floppy Disk Repair, patrons must have the password (ask a friend in-the-know and/or a bartender at Handlebar next door). But be forewarned — the code changes on a regular basis.

Laura Aidan, founder of Prohibition Creamery, who has always been fascinated by Prohibition Era Austin. The entrepreneur combined her interests to open a creamery in an East Austin 1920s bungalow, a few blocks from the Plaza Saltillo station, in the summer of 2016.

During Prohibition, breweries began making and selling ice cream since the products required refrigeration (and most breweries had refrigerated trucks). Even after the repeal, some breweries continued making ice cream, a fact that Aidan finds a "fun coincidence." Inspired by history, the bungalow features a small pocket window to pass alcohol to the front of the house.

The Whisper Room at the the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin, is one of the newest speakeasies on the scene, opening in October 2018. The reservations-only whiskey lounge is separated from the hotel restaurant by velvet curtains, and can service up to 10 people.

The menu is inspired by the Stephen F. Austin’s original menu (the hotel opened in 1924, at the height of Prohibition) and many of the cocktails are made tableside. Decor is inspired by the era, and guests have access to the private patio overlooking Congress Avenue.

Like Whisper Room, there are many secret bars within the city limits, appealing to residents as well as visitors to our city. Fortunately Prohibition is over but retro memories abound.