He wouldn’t give me his name. He wouldn’t give me the address. Instead, directions arrived via email as a vague riddle: Look for a sign in a second-floor window. After a few wrong turns, I spot it—a discreet light box that reads, simply, “Cocktails Here.”
Though less common than the speakeasies of the Prohibition era, underground bars still exist, if you know where to look. In fact, quite a few professional bartenders have operated secret bars, whether to try out a new concept, make ends meet while waiting for a bar space or liquor license to come through or as a limited-time “pop-up” concept in an unsanctioned space. But for an amateur cocktail enthusiast, hosting a secret speakeasy in your home may be the ultimate side hustle.
“I never bartended in my life,” says the proprietor of the Covert Cocktail Club, who agreed to speak to me about his bar on condition of anonymity. Yet, a couple of nights a week—the schedule is fluid—he serves drinks to strangers, who perch at one of four kitchen bar stools at his East Bushwick home while his wife and three-year-old sleep upstairs.
For guests, who mostly find CCC via its Instagram account, $50 buys two cocktails plus a nightcap, alongside an array of “shared amuses.” (The night I’m there, the latter includes fat garlic olives, truffled popcorn and crispy pani puri shells stuffed with cubes of butternut squash, plus a tiny baked apple with vanilla ice cream.)
After a long day working as a New York City tour guide, CCC’s proprietor heads home to set up for paying customers. He starts prepping food and plucks an array of bottles from his custom-built liquor cabinet (he’s long been a drinks enthusiast, collecting obscure bottles of spirits), setting them on the kitchen counter behind him, creating a backbar for the evening organized by the drinks he plans to serve.
I arrive around 9 p.m., as the automated email directed. The front door is open, and I let myself in and am quickly introduced to my drinking companions for the evening: a couple of bartenders from Charleston who had stumbled upon CCC’s Instagram page and impulsively booked a seating that afternoon.
We settle in at the kitchen island, where we’re presented with a small printed menu. One side lists classics (Martini, Sazerac, a mezcal-spiked Negroni); the other suggests one of four “Contemporary Cocktails.” A bartender’s choice drink, which involves filling out a brief questionnaire, rounds out the options. For my first drink, I choose the Triple Crown from the Contemporary list: bourbon, lemon, Pamplemousse liqueur, amaro. “It’s as if a whiskey sour went to int’l graduate school,” reads the description on the menu.
As he’s busy mixing a Negroni Flip for one of the bartenders, made with eggs retrieved from chickens kept in a backyard coop (seriously), I ask where the idea for CCC originated. “A dapper French friend [woodworker Jean Barberis, whose custom cabinetry is also seen in the CCC], built a speakeasy in an abandoned water tower near the financial district,” he says. “You had to leap over a gap between two skyscrapers, and crawl through the water tower. They had live jazz, and you had to leave your phone at the door.”
The speakeasy, The Night Heron, famously ran for about six weeks in 2013 and was created by N.D. Austin, who has staged other short-term events in public spaces ranging from the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory to an annual scavenger hunt through the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Following his work on The Night Heron, Barberis was contracted for another, even more intimate bar experiment. The mandate: Build a three-person bar, intended for one bartender and two customers. “I said, why don’t I do this in my own home?”
He brushed up his drink-making skills with a cocktail master class at Genuine Liquorette with bartender Eben Freeman and conducted a few test runs with friends before opening Covert Cocktail Club in November 2016.
Covert Cocktail Club
A number of these secret bars, from private clubs to invitation-only parties in warehouses, have proliferated not only here in New York, but across the country. Sother Teague, who now runs NYC’s Amor y Amargo, recalls a nine-month-stint tending bar at an unsanctioned space above a steakhouse about three years ago.
“I had a single-speaker turntable on the very tiny bar; the bar didn’t even have seats. It was all table service, with lounge-y, nice, Victorian-ish furniture,” he says. “We didn’t shake any drinks, because we thought it would be too loud, and we didn’t want the apartment above us getting wise.”
Similarly, Nguyen Tran, self-proclaimed “chief instigating officer” at LA’s Starry Kitchen, started his restaurant in 2008 as an illegal underground operation out of his apartment, where his wife, Thi Tran, cooked and alcohol was served. He’s also hosted semi-secret marijuana dinners for which potential attendees needed to fill out personality quizzes in order to secure a space at the table. They were so diligent about keeping it hush-hush that even the staff didn’t learn the location of the dinner until the day of the event.
“All of our success has been about us doing things out of necessity or creativity, not for press or any success,” says Tran. “Sometimes the necessity is to feed your own creativity.”
Part of what drives the keeper of the Covert Cocktail Club to allow strangers into his home is the “performative” aspect: watching guests interact in his kitchen or, when four friends arrive together, becoming a “stranger in my own house.”
“It’s an experience for me as well as for you,” he says. “If you’re not a people person, don’t do it. If you like a quiet drink alone, don’t do it. If you like telling the history of punch—do it.” As for the most obvious question, no, he says, he’s not worried about inviting potential weirdos into his home. “It’s a self-selecting group.”