The term blind pig originated in the 19th century and referred to a low-end place where people could get illegal alcohol during prohibition. The following is the Story Behind Blind Pigs and Speakeasies.

The term blind pig was predated by the term blind tiger.

Many unlicensed establishments featured the game of Faro, which was sometimes known as Tiger, and the locations featuring Faro were known as Tiger Town or Tiger Alley. Therefore, a location that served illegal liquor and also featured the game of Faro was known as a blind tiger. The term blind tiger was first published in 1857 and suggested a location that advertised the opportunity to see a blind tiger for ten cents.  However, what they received for their money was a drink. Many establishments would sell tickets to see an attraction, such as an unusual animal. Once inside, the owner would serve a complimentary drink that would circumvent any laws. The term blind pig probably came from the original blind Tiger; however, there are some other possibilities.

Some stories have the origin being a reference to someone getting blind drunk from drinking cheap whiskey; however, this story is hard to verify. Blind pigs and speakeasies did not end after prohibition. They continued to operate in many urban and rural areas. For those of you from Michigan and particularly the Detroit area, history indicates a Detroit Police raid on an after-hours blind pig was the flashpoint for the start of the 1967 Detroit riots.

Many times, blind pigs and speakeasies had a small peephole, so the proprietor could see who was coming in. This single hole would imply seeing with one eye or “blind.”

The speakeasy

The speakeasy was considered more high-end than a blind pig. Often, it would include entertainment, dancing, food, or all of the above. Usually, proper attire was required to be part of the experience. The Volstead Act passed on January 16, 1919, and provided pages and pages of laws and stipulations regarding the production, sale, distribution, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

Back bar in the Blind Pig Bourbon Speakeasy
The back bar at the Blind Pig Bourbon Speakeasy in Bardstown, Kentucky

With the ratification of the eighteenth amendment, alcohol became illegal overnight. Some citizens approved of the prohibition on liquor but many did not. People began making their moonshine or other illegally distilled liquor. Prohibition created an illegal market immediately. Across the country, illicit saloons appeared to satisfy a thirsty public. Speakeasies were at their peak during the period of the nineteen twenties, also known as the roaring twenties.

These saloons became very popular and also very profitable. New York City alone was estimated to have twenty thousand to one hundred thousand speakeasies during the nineteen twenties. New York City became known as the “City on a Still.”

Password please

Secret locations were part of the speakeasy experience. They were located in basements, or behind the façade of another business such as a barbershop. Patrons stopped at the door, and they needed a password, a code, or even a special handshake to be admitted. The bartenders urged the customers to “speakeasy” so that the outside world would not discover the location.

Often, low-quality alcohol was sold in speakeasies because it was more profitable. The proprietors would alter the liquor, and even brand names would be changed to increase profits. After all, you could not call the cops about the illegal alcohol you were drinking. This dilution of spirits began a trend to new cocktails that used mixers to hide or disguise the inferior product.

The evolution of the speakeasy included male-only locations, but others welcomed men and women. Economic and racial barriers were often overlooked in the speakeasy as people of different financial status would drink together.  Black and white patrons would also frequent speakeasies at the same time to purchase illegal liquor and enjoy the food and entertainment. The story behind blind pigs and speakeasies is a colorful one that often included ownership by organized crime.

Image of speakeasy at the Frazier Museum in Louisville
The “hidden” Speakeasy at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky

The modern speakeasy

Today, many establishments have recreated the aura of the historic speakeasy.  For example, you need to answer a prohibition question to obtain the code to enter “The Blind Pig Bourbon Speakeasy” in Bardstown, Kentucky. The Frazier Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, has an educational exhibit regarding whiskey and bourbon history. If you are lucky enough to know someone there, they will show you the hidden door that accesses a replica speakeasy.

Your favorite bar

Remember, when we get back to normal, and we will get back to normal, we will all need to support our favorite speakeasy, bar, lounge, saloon, club, and restaurant.  They are having a hard time and will need patrons to get back on their feet.