New Review: The Back Room
When one thinks of Prohibition, what usually comes to mind is the 1920 to 1933 nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, and sale of alcohol in the United States. Referred to as the “noble experiment,” Prohibition happened because activists from both religious and political groups believed that alcohol was the root cause of many of society’s problems: crime and violence, health and hygiene concerns, and corruption. This took effect in 1919, ratified under the extremely unpopular 18th amendment to the American constitution. While many distillers and brewers had to shut down their businesses, others found ways to keep operating in secret.
Also known as a “blind pig” or a “blind tiger,” a speakeasy was an establishment that sold liquor under the table during the Prohibition Era. Frequented by the jilted “wets” (which is what they called those against the ban), speakeasies quickly became one of the most profi table businesses—some were owned and operated by members of organised crime—even in the face of police raids and arrests. Despite circumstances, the alcohol industry had become one of the biggest contributors to economic growth, and the public eventually turned the other cheek. The 18th amendment was repealed by the ratification of the 21st, which closed the chapter on speakeasies and Prohibition itself.
But now, Shangri-La at the Fort opens the chapter again with its new speakeasy, The Back Room. With its dark wood and black marble interiors, forest green leather panels, plush seating, and a fully-stocked bar, it is not at all difficult to imagine Hollywood Golden Age figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, or Greta Garbo holding court. Solo drinkers and chatty patrons are welcome to sit by the bar. Large groups may want to retreat behind the glass doors for the luxury of more seating room.
The location had been initially reserved for a nightclub named Limitless, but the idea was quickly scrapped to make room for a speakeasy concept. “We were going to name it The Bee’s Knees [a 1920s slang term for something extraordinary] after our very own gin, but we ended up re-christening it The Back Room because it’s easier to remember,” says Shangri-La at the Fort Executive Mixologist Ulysse Jouanneaud of his new playground.
What sets The Back Room apart from its contemporaries is its devotion to craft gin. Behind the bar, one can find over 150 variants of the spirit, with roughly 60 per cent of the selection not currently available in the Philippine market. Jouanneaud is particularly proud of the cocktail menu, which took his team four months to develop. The goal, he says, was “to conceptualise drinks that reflect the spirit of the Prohibition Era but are still exciting to the modern crowd.”
The cocktails (gin-, whisky-, and bourbon-based) fall into five categories: Jag Juice, for strong, audacious mixes; Giggle Water, for light, easy-to-drink libations; Live Wire, for glam, sophisticated drinks; Moonshine, for experimental, out-of-the-box ideas; and On a Toot, which are served in a large punch bowl good for a sharing. A selection of innovative bar chow such as Pop Rocks (sisig), Trufflemaker (bikini sandwich with jamón ibérico) and Burnt Ends (pork or beef brisket) are available to enjoy.
Ironically, the resurgence of the speakeasy—or what it has become in a society where Prohibition feels like a myth—comes at a time where it is growing more and more difficult to keep something under wraps, all thanks to social media. Though masked by relatively unknown addresses, non-descript entrances, and ever-changing passwords, the modern-day speakeasy is a secret, but not quite. The Back Room is a perfect example. It is within the premises of a five-star hotel, but its specific location can be a challenging puzzle to solve should you be unable to stumble upon the correct door. The quest is well worth the effort, though—The Back Room still is, in a way, the bee’s knees.