a glass with liquid and a slice of lemon on it
A stunning cocktail from Atlas Bar in Singapore.

Amid an alcohol ban, South Africa recently made a stern decree to restaurants, which could’ve been copy and pasted from the United States during the 1920’s.

You can’t serve alcohol, even in tea cups.

In the UK, with all restaurants closed, a similar warning for takeaway was released, stating that no takeaway alcohol will be allowed, either. No such warning exists in New York, or other US cities, but with most indoor dining banned and a bitter cold in the air for the foreseeable future, a return to subterranean prohibition style cocktail dens is now a reality.

Covid-19 Prohibition Cocktail Scenes

Globally, countries are in different phases with covid-19. Some are closed to outsiders, and life is relatively normal inside the bubble, while others are cautiously open, with restrictions on indoor seating, or booze sales.

In other areas battling record pandemic numbers, it’s no indoor dining or drinking, and in some cases – no takeaway alcohol either. You either buy from a liquor store or online retailer and drink at home, or bust.

But alcohol has long been the fuel that kept restaurants running, offering far greater margins than most food sales. Without the ability to legally sell booze in restaurants, as is the case in some countries, underground ‘backdoor’ cocktail scenes are popping up. Even in countries where you can sell booze, but bars and restaurants are closed, ‘speakeasy’ style underground dens are reforming.

a glass with liquid and a slice of lemon
A stunning cocktail from Atlas Bar in Singapore.

Unlike the prohibition era, which was basically just a strange social experiment, the practice of hidden cocktails is far more irresponsible now, given that closures aren’t a take on the place of alcohol in society, but rather an attempt to retain public health.

Still, it’s happening.

There’s been a huge rise of tea cup use in restaurants across South Africa – and no, the people aren’t ordering tea, as you may have suspected. Roiboos tea is huge in South Africa, but the cups are being used as sly ways for patrons to order their favorite booze along with their meal, in a way which doesn’t immediately alert authorities.

There’s new slang, new winks and nods, and typically only known customers enjoy the privilege. Much like prohibition, ‘agents’ of the government are being sent in to crack down on the practice.

Restaurants in the UK are now doing the same for regulars, even with the takeaway alcohol ban in place during the current lockdown, expected until the end of February. Why does that liter bottle of Coca Cola have a reddish hue to it?

New Yorkers enjoying their late afternoon walks are often ‘falling down the stairs’ into backdoor, subterranean cocktail bars for the select few. They’re socially distanced, and all efforts are being made to keep them safe – like masks and hand sanitizers, but they are banned. It hasn’t seemed to change things.

As similar bans or indoor restrictions continue to impact cold climate cities like Boston, Chicago, and beyond, it may really start to feel like the era of prohibition all over again. Right or wrong, people crave the social nature cocktail dens bring. Even with distancing in place.

Cocktails In The Mail

The closure of cocktail bars, and ban on indoor dining, primarily in the USA, Europe and South Africa has lead to a new era of creativity in mixology and cocktails. Closed bars are shipping batches of drinks which pre-mix well, including the famed Negroni, and others with solid shelf life, like a Manhattan or Brown Gold.

Boozy, or spiced drinks which don’t need fresh citrus can actually improve with bottle age, as flavors mellow together. NIO, a Milan based cocktail outlet now ships cocktails globally in what looks like a paper bag. It’s odd, it’s new, but it’s working, and some are damn good.

If you’re in an area which doesn’t prohibit bars or restaurants by mail, or pickup, picking up a large batch of your favorite tipple is a fantastic way to help them keep the lights on, for whenever we may be allowed to see them again.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Fun story! HNY, Gilbert!
    Here in the Detroit area, the governor of the state of Michigan relaxed said laws for “carryout” of alcoholic drinks from restaurants and lounges. (And given the Prohibition-era boat-running of alcohol from Windsor, ONT Canada to Detroit and beyond, this rules change was probably a good idea!)
    Local restaurants are generating their Moscow Mules and canning them, for a reasonable price! Get your cup, add ice and a wedge of lime, et voila!

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