2020 will mark 100 years since the start of the prohibition era in the United States. With thousands of hard-drinking government workers, Washington DC had more illegal drinking dens during prohibition than there were legal bars beforehand! Today, DC has dozens of speakeasy-style bars that give a nod to this era, serving up beautifully crafted cocktails. Here's our pick of the best cocktail bars in Washington DC. Here, you can raise a (legal) toast to one of America's most defining moments. If you're planning to visit Washington, get in touch – we can connect you with a local expert to organise a fully personalised trip.
One of DC's original speakeasies (in post-prohibition terms), the Gibson is known for its moody decor, beautiful cocktails and penchant for unusual ingredients, such as the cucumber bitters used in the sparkling-wine-based Salon Dorado cocktail. The bar hosts regular mixology masterclasses, too. This is one of the city's largest speakeasies, and also one of the most popular. We recommend reserving a table in advance. Luckily, it's refreshingly easy to find – just look for the black, unmarked door at 2009 14th Street NW.
You'll find Left Door in a mainly residential area, next to a launderette. Don't be put off – push open the tired-looking door, and you'll be in one of the coolest speakeasies in DC. Unlike its rivals, there's plenty of light in this knick knack-filled first-floor bar. It feels like the cosy living room of a much-loved grandma, complete with flowery teacups hanging from the wall. What's more, there's an emphasis on fresh, simple ingredients, as seen in drinks such as the Bend and Snap, made with snap-pea-infused vodka.
Head to this beautiful bar for spectacular cocktails served with a side order of social conscience. Self-described as the first activist hotel, the Eaton's USP's include an in-house radio station which supports grassroots activism, copies of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (instead of bibles) in the bedrooms, and complimentary mood-boosting crystals for guests. The Allegory, accessed via a door hidden among the books in the hotel's library, is the most spectacular spot – a beautiful bar dominated by an enormous wraparound mural. At first glance, it appears to feature Alice in Wonderland, but the girl in the painting is actually civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, who famously became the first African-American student to attend Louisiana's all-white William Frantz Elementary School in 1960.
This beautiful basement bar, in the achingly hip DC neighbourhood of Georgetown, is exactly how a speakeasy should be: cosy, dimly-lit and effortlessly stylish. Inside you'll find enormous leather sofas, gilt-framed masterpieces (including a portrait of Alexander Graham Bell, after whom the bar is named) and tables made from old radiators. There's regular live music, but it's the cocktails that steal the show. Make sure you try a gin and tonic, served in miniature bathtubs, or the Shade of Night cocktail, made with activated charcoal and topped with egg white foam. One visit will show you why we rate this as one of the best cocktail bars in Washington DC.
Let's face it – as much as we love the concept of a speakeasy, we're not so keen on the whole secret passwords thing, and the Backroom offers the perfect compromise. It's easy to find, and the entrance – inside a refrigerator in the Capo Italian Deli on Florida Ave NW – offers that all-important touch of authenticity. Step inside and the first thing you'll notice is the enormous chandelier, velvet couches and intimate booths. There's regular live music and you might even see the bartenders set the bar on fire – it's their trademark move.
This is how a speakeasy should be – tricky to find, with a doorway which doubles as something else entirely. In this case, it's a full-length mirror which opens to reveal one of Washington DC's most stylish watering holes. Beverage director Jeff Coles is a bit of a history buff, and it shows. The menu at The Mirror is filled with classic prohibition-era cocktails, including the scofflaw: a drink created in Paris as a tribute to those who flouted prohibition or "scoffed at the law."
Another classic speakeasy - to get to this beautiful bar, you walk through a freezer door to one side of a bustling open kitchen. Chicken + Whiskey is tucked inside a 127-year-old row house on Washington DC's 14th Street. It's wonderfully colourful, with one wall covered almost entirely with neon flyers for past gigs by founding partner Charles Koch. Whiskey (including various hard-to-find Japanese brands) rules the roost here, although the cocktail menu offers something for everyone. Our favourite? Two Tickets to Pearadise, made with pear brandy, cognac, honey and lemon. We're getting tipsy just thinking about it...
Full disclosure: the Round Robin, isn't a speakeasy - but it's definitely one of the best cocktail bars in Washington DC. This bar is an absolute must-visit for anyone interested in prohibition. Head bartender Jim Hewes is an amateur historian and prohibition expert who'll happily talk for hours about this fascinating era. Ask him why the best parties were at DC's embassies (regarded as foreign soil, and therefore able to serve alcohol). This cosy, wood-panelled bar, with framed photos of past presidents, is within walking distance of the White House. The bar has always been popular with politicians (Hewes has served multiple presidents, including Obama and Clinton). Try the mint julep, introduced to DC in the 1800s by Kentucky statesman Henry Clay, who first drank it at this very bar.
Feature image: Interior of Gibson bar © The Gibson
Tamara is a former snowboard instructor who's been a freelance travel writer for 12 years. She loves snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking and scuba diving, and the regions she knows best are Asia, America and Africa. Europe-wise she knows Germany and France very well. In normal times she does two or three trips a month. Follow her on Twitter