A speakeasy is an establishment that sells alcoholic beverages illegally. Although the origins of this term lie in the United States, speakeasies can be found all over the world. These establishments became especially famous in the United States during the Prohibition era in the early 20th century when alcohol was banned as a result of lobbying from the temperance movement.
The term is believed to be derived from the idea that people patronizing such an establishment needed to stay quiet or “speak easy” to avoid detection. To avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement, the structure is often well insulated to minimize noise, and it may be drab so that it does not catch the eyes. Some speakeasies historically were established in buildings that looked like they were falling down from the outside, but revealed lavish interiors on the inside.
In nations where there are bans on alcohol or restrictions on the types of alcohol that can be sold, a speakeasy provides alcohol in violation of the ban. The alcohol may be produced on site, in the case of simple beers and distilled beverages, or smuggled in to the facility. The operating costs for an establishment can be high for organizations that smuggle in alcohol because the cost of the liquor is inflated as a result of the dangers of manufacturing and smuggling it. This is passed on to customers of the establishment, who pay a premium for the drinks they consume.
In addition to offering alcohol, a speakeasy may also offer entertainment. Some operate as night clubs with music, dance, and other entertainment for guests. They also may offer gambling, an activity that can also be banned or restricted by law. Some speakeasies operate relatively openly, while others may require people to submit a password or pay a cover charge to enter. These restrictions are designed to keep government agents out and may also be used to select elite clientele.
Some of the 1920s clubs that became famous during the Prohibition era transitioned easily once the ban was lifted, using their reputations to expand their clientele and continue operating. Thanks to a nostalgia for the United States of the 1920s, a number of restaurants and nightclubs in the United States decorate themselves in a Prohibition style and may refer to themselves as speakeasies to attract clientele. Guests need not fear, however, the appearance of the dreaded "Revenue Men" who were once charged with enforcing Prohibition.