Angel’s Share, the Japanese bar in New York’s East Village that arguably kicked off the rebirth of speakeasies in America, opened in 1993. Mark Zuckerberg was just 9 years old, and Steve Jobs didn’t even work at Apple. Without a smartphone to look up the address or a social media platform to read up on the bar, drinkers had to actually discover Angel’s Share by word of mouth, or stumble upon it inside a second floor izakaya.
Another seven years passed before Sasha Petraske opened Milk & Honey, yet another seven more before Please Don’t Tell opened (just a few blocks from Angel’s Share), and another few years more until speakeasies entered pop culture as icons of sophisticated tippling. A lot has changed in the last 25 years, with Facebook, Instagram and Yelp “disrupting” the bar industry completely. While that shift has empowered drinkers to seek out quality establishments (and quality bars to make themselves known), it’s also completely undermined the entire idea of a secretive bar. Nothing is secret on the internet for long.
Yet, bar owners continue to open new speakeasies. One such bar, Mr. Cannon, opened earlier this year within the red brick alleyways of Manhattan’s historic Seaport. The bar channels the classic Prohibition style that characterizes a lot of modern speakeasies with dim lighting, worn leather furniture and an air of polished reserve. Meanwhile, out in L.A., Mark and Jonnie Houston, the twins behind Houston Hospitality, have opened a string of hidden bars since 2008, some resembling the archetypal speakeasy, and others—especially Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, which you enter by way of a refrigerator—look nothing like it. As these bars open, bartenders and owners grapple with digital cocktail culture, balancing the need for awareness and coverage with the desire for secrecy.
Social media puts secret bars in a tough spot. Many bars rely on platforms to get word out about new offerings and generate industry prestige. Plus, customers now expect to preview the bars they go to online and find new venues through digital buzz. Those avenues seem completely off limits for any bar proffering an incognito theme—but social media isn’t totally out of reach. Speakeasies just have to be smart about how they use it.
Indirect marketing allows bars to gain attention without promoting themselves directly and defeating the whole purpose of the secret bar. Before Mr. Cannon launched in earnest, the bar held a quiet “friends and family” event, inviting patrons of other Seaport venues and select guests to check out the bar before the rest of the public. Steve Cornwell, CMO of The Howard Hughes Corporation, which handled Mr. Cannon’s launch, says the guest list for the preview party included a number of social media influencers, who would do the bar’s dirty work of spreading news about the opening. While these influencers might engage in some good natured elusiveness, teasing followers with limited info about the exclusive and secret bar they attended, Cornwell explains that every post is a piece in the trail of breadcrumbs leading other drinkers to the space.