As the first city in America to sign an order making alcohol consumption or possession a crime during the period in the early 1900s known as Prohibition, it seems fitting that Savannah should be chosen as home to a museum on the topic.
Tell them Gus sent you
A display from the American Prohibition Museum.
Courtesy Visit Savannah
Prohibition in the United States was, like many historical periods, defined as much by presence as by absence. Although many bars closed. others went underground, giving birth to the speakeasy.
The word “speakeasy” comes from the secretive nature of these establishments–you had to quietly tell trusted friends where they could go for a drink, and too much chatter could result in a raid or closure.
These days, the speakeasy has taken on a new life. They’re no longer places where people go to drink illegally, but bars have taken the “you have to know a password or special knock to get in here” concept and used it to make nightlife feel a bit more intimate and exclusive.
Speakeasies have officially gone mainstream — New York PDT (Please Don’t Tell), accessible through the back door of a hot dog place in the East Village, is so far from secret that it’s listed in tourist guidebooks.
In the 21st century, speakeasies have become more synonymous with expensive cocktails and dim lighting than with the possibility of a police raid.
And that’s what makes Congress Street Up, the speakeasy attached to the Prohibition Museum, so fun and so clever at the same time. Its name comes from the bar’s address — while the museum’s entrance is on St. Julien Street, in the city’s busy City Market block, the front door of the speakeasy is on the quieter Congress Street.
If you’re coming through the museum, the bar is at the end — you’ll need to knock on the door and tell them Gus sent you.
Speak easy, drink carefully
A close-up of the bar at Congress Street Up.
Courtesy Visit Savannah
In the true spirit of the speakeasy, Congress Street Up is also open when the museum isn’t. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, people interested in stopping by should hang out near the museum’s gift shop and, as bartender Sean Whaley explains cryptically, “look for a well-dressed man.”
Speaking of being well-dressed: that extends to the patrons as well. Guests should try to summon the spirit of the Jazz Age (flapper costumes not required, but certainly welcomed) by looking their best in order to score a coveted ticket in.
Once inside Congress Street Up, you’ll feel like you were immediately transported back in time to the Roaring Twenties, except for all the people at the bar looking at their smartphones. The cocktails are authentic to the era, including a Mary Pickford (with white rum and cranberry juice it was the Cosmo of its day, named for one of the era’s most iconic celebrities), the French 75 and Pimm’s Cups.
There are other nods to modernity, though: if cocktails aren’t your style, there’s craft beer–almost all from Georgia, like the Compass Rose IPA from Savannah’s own Service Brewing Company.
If the spirit of the speakeasy moves you so much you can’t bear to leave, there’s one more option: Congress Street Up hosts a bimonthly classic cocktail-making class so that you can whip up your own Mary Pickfords at home when the bar’s not open.