For those of you who write or read historical novels, I’ve got a real treat for you. My guest, Sarah Zama, is an expert in the roaring Twenties era, and she’s here to show us what’s involved in running a speakeasy. Fun, right? I’m on my last leg of edits, so I’ll step aside and leave you in Sarah’s capable hands.
All yours, Sarah!
Don’t get me wrong. I see quite a lot of novels set in the Twenties, most of them being family sagas and erotica. But let’s be honest, the Twenties call for crime fiction. Gangsters, bootlegging, speakeasies, flaming youth… come on!
You hear the word speakeasy and immediately think of Prohibition. I know you do.
What? Now that you’ve thought about it, you think running a speakeasy sounds more profitable than writing a novel? That’s not where I wanted to go, but okay. Yeah, I know. Flappers, jazz, cocktails and all that fun stuff. But there are more unsavory angles to the business. Maybe we should talk this out. Let’s look at the facts.
What would you sell?
First off, no matter what form they take, speakeasies are always outlaw enterprises. There’s no romantic angle to it. Once you can live with this, we can go on.
In little towns they are mostly small places, very often they’re rooms inside private houses, where you share booze you produced yourself. Which technically is legal…until you charged for it. But let’s be honest, though this can be a smooth business (your townsmen, even the sheriff, aren’t likely to bother you) there isn’t much money in it.
Where you want your speakeasy is in the big city. If you go this route, I just want you to be aware that you’re going to deal with the underworld. End of story. Bootlegging in the big city is the business of mobsters. And it’s a very serious business. Big money usually is. Mobsters either own or control most speakeasies, so not only will you get your booze from them, you’ll also want to be nice and polite with their entire crew.
Where this booze comes from, you don’t want to know. Believe me. Yes, mobsters do import a small amount of genuine liquor from abroad and charge a fortune for it, but you, like most people, can’t afford it. For the most part, the booze you can afford is produced inside the United States.
But here’s the problem: liquor – genuine liquor – must be aged. At the very least it takes months to produce decent liquor. This is extremely inconvenient, because the demand is very high. So high, in fact, that no mobster could keep up with it…if they dealt with the real stuff.
Which they don’t, of course. They need something that’s easy to do and doesn’t require aging. That’s gin. Alcohol, water, juniper berries. A quick mix, a short steep, and you’re done. So easy that a kid could do it. In fact, entire families produce gin and sell it to mobsters. It’s an easy business, relatively profitable…as long as they don’t get caught. In which case, they may claim that it’s for their own consumption (which is legal), but yeah, whether that’s believable depends on the size of their stock, I suppose.
But there’s another problem. While getting water and juniper barriers is easy, getting alcohol surely isn’t. You could get small amounts of alcohol from a medical prescription – which would be ethylic alcohol – but you’re unlikely to build a business on that. So you’ll get alcohol from the bootleggers themselves…and that isn’t ethylic alcohol.
Even during Prohibition, alcohol was still produced in the U.S. for industrial purposes, but to make sure it wouldn’t be used for consumption, it was denaturized by adding methanol. Methanol, by the way, is poisonous and may result in death if consumed in large quantities. Bootleggers diverted this industrial alcohol from its original destinations, made it drinkable (or supposedly so) with a fast, extremely unreliable process, and sold it to producers or processed it themselves. As it’s easy to guess, this alcohol was still very dangerous for the health and if that was not enough, it became even more dangerous when it was added with all an array of suspicious substances to give the illusion that it was some other kind of liquor.
In the best of cases, it tastes horrible. In the worst, it kills you. But hey, you just plan to sell it, you don’t have to drink it, right?
Who would you deal with?
People involved in the first leg of the alcohol-producing line are forced to deal with mobsters. You, who are involved in the final leg of the alcohol consumption line, are involved even more.
Mobsters control any kind of alcohol that isn’t industrial, so you get your liquors from them. And even if you aren’t a mobster, you want to be very, very careful who you buy your liquor from. It may be a life or death decision.
In big cities there are usually gangs warring over the profitable bootleg market. These gangs are normally highly ethnically characterized. Which means, it isn’t just an economic matter, it’s a social matter as well. If you’re smart, you deal with the gang controlling the territory where your business is located. Chances are high you belonged to the same ethnic group as the gang, so you’re kind of culturally compelled to deal with them.
Sometimes, you not only share the gang’s culture and origin, but their native language as well. In many respects, you prefer to deal with that gang. Well, that would certainly be true in my case. But even if you don’t belong to the gang’s ethnicity, you’ll still deal with the gang controlling your territory for practical reasons.
The price of alcohol is notoriously very high, and not only for a question of high demand, but also because it includes protection. A percentage of the alcohol prize is protection. Which means, the moment you pay that price it’s as if you’re signing a contract, an understanding with that gang. The gang is not only providing you with alcohol, they are also guaranteeing that nobody will bother your business.
The mechanics of protection.
The way they do this is through their connection with politics. Often, a gang’s political connections also belong to their same ethnicity. In the Twenties, many politicians were originally from an immigrated family and at the time generations were still new enough that the bond with the original culture was still very strong. Politicians were expected to help their original community, and their original community was expected to help him.
This was true for gangs, as well. Because gangs were usually very wealthy, they were expected to give back a part of their wealth. In fact, they were normally benefactors of their own community, which cemented the relationship between the community, the gang, and the politician.
If you think this sounds like a complex situation, you’re not mistaken. Actually, you may want to reconsider whether you want to get stuck in the middle of this mess. Just saying.
So the gang will pay the politician with the protection money they got from you and the politician will keep things calm on the gang’s turf. But sometimes, the politician will pay the gang to ensure they will put their community’s support behind the right politician. Be prepared to respond to this. By the way, this works equally well with politicians who don’t belong to the same community as the gang, because, you know, money speaks everyone’s language.
So the moment you pay the gang’s booze, you’re stuck in this mechanism. Any strange move on your part may be considered betrayal by the gang – on many levels. And if there’s one thing you definitely don’t want, it’s a gangster who’s upset with you.
But after you go through all this, you’re all set, right? Uh…not quite.
There are all sorts of other people who could damage your business. The cop on the beat is only one person you will bribe. Prohibition agents who may walk into your speakeasy, same thing. Deliverymen of anything other than alcohol might want an encouragement to forget what they see going on in your place.
For any number of reasons, your establishment may get raided and padlocked in spite of everything you did. True, you only need to go to court, bribe someone, and soon you’ll be back in your business in the same place or in a new location, but that’s still more expense. But then I warned you, didn’t I? Running a speakeasy is a profitable venture, but very expensive and even more dangerous.
You might want to consider just writing about it. Maybe not as good for your pocket, but way safer for your health.
And I promise, I’ll be your first reader!
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