The Prohibition era and speakeasies in Raleigh, NC

Merchant

The Merchant’s upscale interior. | Photo by RALtoday

What were once illegal operations in the 20th century are now elegant, trendy spots for patrons to grab elevated cocktails. Founded on good spirits and the allure of a private and hidden lounge, speakeasies have resurfaced in modern times. There are even a handful in Raleigh found behind unsuspecting doors.

🚫 Prohibition in NC

Beginning in the 20th century, there was a call to outlaw the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages across the US. Although the nationwide Prohibition era began in 1920, NC became the first Southern state to approve a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages in 1908 after the Anti-Saloon League and NC Gov. Robert B. Glenn advocated for it. The law officially took effect in 1909.

The national Prohibition era ended in 1933 after authorities failed to fully enforce sobriety. Four years later, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC) system was established by the General Assembly. On Aug. 4, 1937, the first ABC store in Wake County opened its doors on Wilmington Street.

🥃 Modern-day Raleigh speakeasies

Born out of the Prohibition era, speakeasies were named by those who were told to “speak easy” when talking about these secret bars in public.

Raleighites seem to have been great gatekeepers of the Oak City’s speakeasy scene. Other than the 2020 discovery of a 1920s speakeasy underneath the Sir Walter Hotel, they are still some of Raleigh’s best-kept secrets.

We’ll let you in on one of our favorites. The Merchant (126 S. Salisbury St.), which was reimagined in 2021, gets its name from its historic building erected in 1922. This speakeasy originally served as office space for the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, of which the name pays tribute to. The building later housed a hat shop called E.G. Hats, owned by Emma Goza in the 1980s.

You can now find the upscale speakeasy hidden behind a vending machine door. Walk up dimly lit stairs to find an elegant space offering cocktails and small bites. We recommend The Merchant’s Drink Up Week special, “From Raleigh with Love,” made with vodka, strawberry, lemon, egg white + Thai basil.

Here are three other speakeasies that serve Prohibition era vibes + Drink Up Week specials.

  • The Green Light, 108 E. Hargett St. | Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. | This hideout behind a bookcase is the cat’s pajamas; try the Honey Rose cocktail made with bourbon, honey, lemon + rosemary.
  • The Haymaker, 555 Fayetteville St. | Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. | You don’t have to take a trip to the beach to sip on a Mango Margarita.
  • The Architect Bar & Social House, 108 1/2 E. Hargett St. | Monday-Sunday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. | Try the Gimlet, made with Tito’s, lime, and simple syrup.
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