A mild argument broke out between a bouncer and a 7-Eleven cashier. It was too early, the bouncer protested, gesturing to the clock. It opens at eight, he said. The cashier, meanwhile, pointed out that a couple had just come in. The bouncer relents and opens the door to a storeroom. A part of you wonders, as you file past the shelves of instant noodles and ketchup bottles why people would fight to get in here, but you know what you came for: a bar.

Manila’s hidden bars
A band plays at the first anniversary party of ABV.

Curtains are parted, and holy chic — it’s The Great Gatsby meets industrial Berlin with black and white marbled floors, floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the stone bar, and gray concrete on the walls and exposed pipes and vents. The servers move around in uniforms mimicking bulletproof vests.

This is Bank Bar, one of many speakeasies in Manila — bars are located in obscure locations, preferably disguised by one establishment or the other. There’s Prohibition, accessed through a Greenbelt fire exit; there’s Blind Pig, the sign of which is tiny and in Braille, embossed on an anonymous-looking door. For this story, BusinessWorld visited three speakeasies, namely, Bank, The Curator, and ABV, with ABV and The Curator ranking among Asia’s Best 50 Bars for 2016 (as per Drinks International).

The Prohibition Era in the United States, lasting from the 1920s to the early part of the 1930s, started the proud but humble tradition of the speakeasy. Oddly enough, the law that prohibited the sale and production of alcohol kicked off some of the most legendary parties the world has seen, or read: Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby made his fortune out of smuggling alcohol and being part of a chain of speakeasies, and we know how he partied. Speakeasies too, served as fountains of culture for America: this was where writers and artists rubbed elbows with gangsters and crooks. The vibe was naughty, and therefore, thrilling.

And with the threat of a liquor ban coming in along with the new president, maybe speakeasies are the way to go.

BusinessWorld chanced upon ABV’s first anniversary about a month ago, where, as a tribute to the prohibition era that gave the bar the idea, guests came dressed to the nines in garb inspired by the 1920s. A jazz band played in the background, while Patrick Cuartero, managing partner and proprietor of ABV, said in a speech that evening, “We have never experienced this kind of reception for a bar that’s supposed to be secret.”

The bar is “concealed” by a hotdog stop called Lazy Bastard: concealed in quotation marks, because a wide blinking sign advertises the hotdogs and burgers a little too loudly, so you have to ask yourself what’s up. A grand door out of place in the tiled hotdog joint opens up to reveal the drinking den.

Manila’s hidden bars
The crowd at ABV’s Roaring ’20s-themed anniversary party.

Of course, prohibition is long gone, and now, the naughtiness of the speakeasy has been relegated to pure fun. Said Aldrin Ancheta, principal bartender for the Curator, “It’s thrilling… People would feel they belong to a certain group… once they know the things that are in. Only… a small percentage of people… know what a speakeasy is. To the majority of those people, they think that it’s like a privilege knowing those kinds of places.” 

The speakeasy these days, therefore, shows off someone is cool: this guy does know where to party, away from the mainstream crowd.

Mr. Cuartero gives a clue to the further appeal of speakeasies in Manila, with his bar being inspired by those he has stayed at in New York. Mr. Ancheta, meanwhile, expounds: “They’ve heard [of] it, they’ve read [about it]. New York; London has it.

“Craft cocktails [that we serve in this setting] give us that… [image]… [that] we’re up to par with these countries. We know what they’ve felt, we know what they’re drinking.”

Oddly enough, The Curator (founded in 2013), according to Mr. Ancheta, does not rate as a speakeasy. Its Makati address is concealed by a wine bar — not too suspicious. During BusinessWorld’s visit, there was a meeting between two people, and a couple canoodling at the wine bar, but another grand sliding door revealed another concrete-industrial special, its effect softened by couches. Music fit to be played on fashion runways blared from the speakers, but oddly enough, the vibe was chill, because some guy at the bar chatted quietly to the bartender about his (failing) lovelife.

“We always inform them… [that] it’s not a speakeasy. We try to educate them as much as possible about that,” said Mr. Ancheta. 

Manila’s hidden bars

“What happened was… it was the cheapest place that we could get. And then, we already had plans of having [signs] outside, it’s just that… we already passed it to the owners of the building. It’s not yet being looked into.”

In each of the speakeasies BusinessWorld visited, to test the bartender’s skill, this writer asked for one of their signature cocktails, plus a custom-made drink that came with this writer’s instructions. For ABV, we got a concoction made with Hendrick’s Gin, egg whites, sugar, raspberry liqueur, other ingredients, which came off as sweet and progressively bitter. The brief to the bartender was to make a drink based on this writer’s outfit. For Bank Bar, a brief was given to the bartender to make a drink based on the reporter’s projected mood. He gave a drink made with Hendrick’s Gin, Pimms No. 5, cucumber and Ginger Ale, tasting bitter and salty like tears, but the last two ingredients made the impression of better days just waiting to come. For The Curator, Mr. Ancheta gave BusinessWorld a drink made with two kinds of gin, creme violette, chartreuse, other ingredients, and then garnished with a sprig of rosemary. The brief for him was the easiest: to make a drink that would remind one of a garden.

“I didn’t put the ingredients in that drink because I liked it. I try to put myself in your situation,” said Mr. Ancheta.

“That shows their experience is what all these spirits taste like,” said Mr. Cuartero during their April ’20s-themed party.

The custom drinks also make a case for how much a bartender knows and cares about their customer. “The attention for details — not just the drink… for us to get that 100%, the 1% is in the drink, 99% of that is the experience,” said Mr. Ancheta.  Last April, Mr. Cuartero said, “90% of your craft is being able to converse and speak.”

He said about bartenders, “They’re your shrink; for a lot of people. And they hear so damn much. They have people talking to them all the time, telling them their secrets and troubles…. so why would they not know so damn much?” Again, we go back to the lovestruck guy in The Curator’s bar.

“It destroys the barrier between… a customer-server relationship that we don’t want to establish here. Like, this is our home. You’re not a customer: you are our [guest]. This is a much better relationship,” said Mr. Ancheta.