You don’t need a code word or a special knock at a secret door to enjoy speakeasy culture in Charles Town. At Bootleg, a newly updated bar at the Turf, it’s Prohibition every day, but without the watered whiskey, brass-knuckled bouncers or risk of a police raid.
The new space, with its semicircular banquette upholstered in button-tufted red vinyl, faux-granite bar and mirrored rear wall, was converted from a service bar for the Turf’s Rib Room restaurant. The cozily narrow space opened Dec. 11, 2013, and already draws regulars, according to bartender Tina Balbo-Hickerson.
Prohibition slang is printed on cards for patrons to learn, and oversize vintage photos from the 1920s provide wall decoration. In one, federal agents oversee the destruction of a small mountain of stills, and in another, the New York Daily Mirror announces in a front page headline from 1933, “Prohibition Ends at Last.”
But outfitted in a spaghetti-strap gown encrusted in sequins, bartender Balbo-Hickerson is determined to keep flapper fashion alive. “Every night is a different outfit, just to keep it fun,” she said.
She finds most of her vintage pieces in thrift stores. “I’ve always been a Goodwill junkie,” she said. “Now I can take advantage of it.”
Balbo-Hickerson is mixing specialty drinks based on spirits, called SweetShine, from Bloomery Plantation in Charles Town. The fruit cordials, made from white corn liquor infused with fruits, nuts and spices, turn classic cocktails into something new, according to Bloomery partner Rob Losey.
“We take and Old Fashioned and update it,” he said. “We turn a twist on a Manhattan.”
A Bloomery Julep adds Sweetshine ginger cordial to the traditional bourbon and mint. A Ceddo’d Gin Rickey includes Limoncello Sweetshine, the product that began cordial-making operations at Bloomery in 2010.
Having returned from a trip to Italy, Rob and Linda Losey wanted to reproduce the signature cordial that involves fresh lemons steeped in spirits. Today, the plantation grows lemons in a greenhouse, along with raspberries and ginger. Pumpkins and peaches are also sourced locally and walnuts are collected on-site. Kentucky supplies the 190-proof corn liquor.
“In West Virginia, we can only get 151,” Rob Losey said. “We get really high-proof, colorless, flawless liquor. All of the flavor, we put in.”
Favorite cocktails at Bootleg include the Dreamsicle, for which Balbo-Hickerson employs house-made vanilla vodka, and the Ruby Red Slipper, a take on a vodka-and-grapefruit that employs Raspberry-Lemon Sweetshine. All of the drink recipes were conceived at Bloomery.
With all of the potables comes an equally interesting selection of bar foods. Chef Sean Deblois creates house-made potato chips smothered in Old Bay seasoning, served with a crab dip for which the recipe remains his secret. Billy Clubs, named to reflect the bar’s Prohibition theme, are fresh-baked pretzel sticks served with nacho cheese. Copper Kettle canaps are phyllo cups filled with marinated tomatoes and topped with mozzarella and bacon.
The menu includes wings and meatballs, shrimp and tiny crabcake bites, and the entire restaurant menu may also be ordered in the bar. Weekends bring live entertainment. Planned for the future is an outdoor patio space, for which tables will be made from liquor barrels.
Owner Robin Marcus said the new bar has been an immediate hit.
“We tried a martini bar. We tried that two years ago. It didn’t work,” she said. “Whatever Ron did, he made it work.”