The password to enter Alchemy Spirits & Concoctions could not have been more appropriate. A reference to The Great Gatsby at first just seemed like a clever use of irony, however it was soon apparent that the secret code was actually the first chapter of a very elaborate story. A story which would take us back in time to a Prohibition-era speakeasy, in the anything but dry town of Tallahassee.
There was a little trepidation in our decision to visit Alchemy. The combination of a speakeasy and a college town implied a required level of hipster credibility, which this balding 30-something sorely lacks. Then I remembered the secret code, and realized all the credibility I needed was right there. How many people would actually know the story behind the code? Not many I gathered, which boosted my confidence that perhaps I'd fit in at Alchemy after all.
And then I gave the password to the wrong guy.
The doorman at Midtown Filling Station - the larger bar inside of which Alchemy is located - just smiled along with a slight chuckle. After about the 6th or 7th time I said "West Egg" he started to look around wildly, sort of like when you get stuck talking to Lou from Accounting at the company holiday party, and you're looking for someone to bail you out. I recognized this call for help, and decided now was probably the time to ask if I was in the right place.
Look for the gas pump by the pool tables.
These were easily the strangest directions I've ever received, but sure enough in a corner of the Filling Station we not only found a gas pump by the pool tables, but more importantly, we found the right doorman. I didn't dare try the password again, and instead went with the typical restaurant approach: "10pm reservation for Deej."
|The secret door.|
A portion of the diamond plate covered wall swung open, and the host invited us inside. Only we weren't inside, or in Tallahassee for that matter. Instead, we found ourselves standing in a dimly lit alleyway in 1920s Chicago. Just then, the door slammed shut behind us, followed by the unmistakeable sound of a locking deadbolt...
While giving a short lesson on the history of speakeasies, the host escorted us down the alleyway to the real front door for Alchemy. Before taking us inside, however, he took a moment to brief us on the house rules. A bar with rules was a completely foreign concept, but it was just another sign that this wasn't any ordinary gin joint.
|No phones...No pictures...No corny pick up lines.|
Hello Old Sport.
For years the only place I've ever felt "in my element" is sitting on a couch in the lobby of a great hotel. I knew that list had effectively doubled from the moment we stepped inside of Alchemy. We started to grab one of the dozen banquettes along the left side of the room, but I noticed there was no one sitting at the beautiful bar on our right. A bar without a customer on a stool is like going to a Matthew McConaughey movie: pretty to look at, but should never be allowed to happen. So we pulled up a couple chairs, and were soon introduced to Phillip.
My motto has always been: Trust a man in a vest and a circa 1970 John Lennon beard. OK, so always might be bit of a stretch, but it definitely became my motto shortly after meeting Phillip. Our introduction was far more than just your typical "What can I get you this evening?" Instead, we were treated to a history lesson on the makings of an authentic Prohibition-era menu. He pointed out the absence of vodka, and gently nudged us to work off the menu he created and leave the Captain & Cokes for home. Who was I to go against my own motto?
Since my beloved Captain & Coke was off the table, I flipped to the rum section of the menu and ordered a "Hemingway." MJ, being a bit of a gin gal, opted for the humorously named "Corpse Reviver #2." Phillip the Alchemist then became Phillip the Artist, and proceeded to put on a demonstration that was incredible to watch. The time, ingredients, and steps involved in making these two little cocktails was like watching a sculptor at work. As he handed us our glasses I almost felt bad for drinking something so beautiful.
I got over it.
|The artist at work.|
For our second round, I decided to check out the latest craze in cocktails with a Pimm's Ginger, while MJ asked Phillip to make her something special, the only stipulation being that she doesn't like tequila. Again we watched as Phillip set to crafting our works of art, while inviting us to taste and smell various ingredients that all had their own little story. He handed us our glasses, and was particularly interested in feedback from this round. My Pimm's Ginger was fantastic, but MJ had a hard time pegging her concoction. She knew she loved it, but couldn't quite come up with what was in it.
As our evening drew to a close, Phillip had one last history lesson - read: excuse to drink - up his sleeve. He poured three shot glasses of a syrupy black liquid of which I was completely unfamiliar. He wouldn't tell us what it was, but remembering my motto - and Alchemy's rule #1 - we each lifted a glass and toasted a great evening. The surprise liquid turned out to be Fernet Branca, an Italian liqueur which just the day before I had watched Anthony Bourdain use in a similar toast with renowned chef Fergus Henderson. It tasted a bit like Jaegermeister with a dash of mint, but without the nasty side effect of being forced to pray to a porcelain God.
Phillip was truly a master. There was a passion to his work which was impossible not to admire, but that also rendered every cocktail I'd have in the future as absolute rubbish. I had seen that - like food in a five diamond restaurant - cocktails could also be works of art, and it was safe to say that Captain & Coke would never be the same. How could it?
|Champagne? How boring!|
Finally, our time at Alchemy had come to an end, but not before it turned my perception of bars upside down. Aside from the cocktails and the brilliantly executed speakeasy theme, Alchemy demonstrated that a bar doesn't have to entertain with loud music or TVs showing the big game. Instead, the entertainment at Alchemy is you, and the company you keep. It's a place to connect in a unique and laid back atmosphere, without the distractions of cell phones and constant Facebook updates. They encourage you to disconnect and have an actual conversation, a concept that is certainly more 1920s than 2012.
As a final reminder that Alchemy was a speakeasy, we were asked to exit out the back door. The harsh reality of 2012 greeted us on the other side, but in spirit we were still in the 1920s. For a few short hours we were characters in The Great Gatsby, and took a journey to a time and place that one would never expect to find in Tallahassee.
If you go...
- Make a reservation
- Sit at the bar and enjoy the creation of art
- Give the password to the right doorman