Omni William Penn set to reopen reputed speakeasy

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

For years, it was more boarded up than the Boardwalk Empire.

Wednesday, the Omni William Penn will re-open a long-closed bar that reportedly was a speakeasy, one of countless secret saloons that defied the ban on alcohol during Prohibition.

The grand opening of Speakeasy coincides with the 79th anniversary of the repeal of the Prohibition in 1933. It will open to the public Thursday.

Hunkered under the stairs below the main lobby, the room served as a storage space for decades. It was restored as part of the hotel's $25 million renovation, says Robert Page, area director of sales and marketing for Omni Hotels.

“As we went forth with this most recent renovation, we thought, ‘Wouldn't it be really neat to be able to renovate that and re-open it?' We just felt it was part of the legacy and history,” he says.

Whether or not the original bar was part of the lawless era depicted in the HBO crime drama “Boardwalk Empire” is unclear. In Pittsburgh, Prohibition spawned bootlegger turf wars, police corruption and as many as 50 speakeasies, or “blind pigs.” It compelled Pittsburgh Brewing Co. to begin making ice cream instead of beer. It divided the city between the “wets” and “drys,” whose rhetorical brawls were reported exhaustively in the newspapers.

Flappers never got to sip Cosmopolitans, but 21st-century Pittsburghers can.

They can also enjoy drinks made from local vodka distillers Boyd & Blair. The menu features more than 40 old and new cocktails and a few appetizers.

The new design of the Speakeasy replicated the flocked wallpaper, tin ceiling and wall sconces that were part of the original decor. Management hired a mixologist to research recipes for drinks that were served during the Roarin' Twenties.

A rear exit opens onto a warren of hallways that led to Oliver Avenue. In the event of a police raid, customers could beat a discreet retreat, Page says.

The original mahogany bar had to be scrapped because it was too damaged. A black granite bar now coils around a miniature skyline of backlit bottles, where mixologist Dawn Young alchemizes spirits, botanicals, syrups and seltzer.

Less a bartender than a chef who uses liquids, she concocts libations such as the Jaybird Sour, which is made with locally distilled Wigle Whiskey, and the Egg Flip, egg nog's deliciously seductive cousin. It's made with Grand Marnier, Hennessy cognac, birch syrup, nutmeg, a whole egg and a “secret ingredient.”

Blind Tiger, the house punch, is blended with Benedictine, Cherry Herring and Chai Tea, and other ingredients.

In a display case in the corner of Speakeasy are two bottles of whiskey, each marked with the William Penn seal.

One yellowed label reads “Overholt Whiskey” and is dated April 7, 1913.

Abraham Overholt, the grandfather of Henry Clay Frick, ran a distillery in the 19th century in West Overton in Westmoreland County. Frick built the William Penn, which opened in 1916.

Beginning Thursday, Speakeasy will be open from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Details: 412-281-7100

William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wloeffler or 412-320-7986.

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