The Pouring Twenties: Speakeasy brings classic cocktails, atmosphere to downtown Lawrence

Scott Elliot, owner, and Kate Brubacher, bar manager, sit in new speakeasy John Brown's Underground, at 7 E. Seventh St.

A classic gin martini with a twist, left, and Pisco Sour, right, are two of the craft cocktails available at John Brown's Underground, the new speakeasy-themed bar in downtown Lawrence.

Scott Elliot, owner of John Brown's Underground, sets up a table in the back room where patrons can reserve two-top tables or the entire room.

It may not advertise its whereabouts with a sign, but John Brown’s Underground will leave a light on for you.

The bar will turn on a green light outside when the 75-seat bar in the basement of 7 E. Seventh St. is open to customers, and a red light when it’s at capacity. The red light has been on Thursday through Saturday nights the first two weekends it’s been open.

Open the nondescript door and the sound of a cocktail shaker, sophisticated jazz and pleasant conversation will greet the guests. It’s now clear you’ve stepped out of a college town and into a 1920s speakeasy.

“That’s what we want to create,” says John Brown’s owner Scott Elliot. “That feeling of discovery.”

Elliot experienced the same feeling at a speakeasy in Austin, Texas, with a trumpet on the door and nothing else. As soon as he opened the door, he says, he was greeted with hospitality and authenticity.

“We call it a speakeasy, but we’re not illegally selling hooch,” Elliot says. “We have real people, real drinks, real food and a real experience.”

Elliot also wanted John Brown’s Underground — named after the abolitionist whom Elliot sees as a symbol for passion and freedom — to be a special spot for guests, especially 40- to 60-year-olds. Lawrence does a phenomenal job catering to the college crowd because of the university, Elliot says, but people also retire here and they want to live well.

“We needed a place where parents can come have a drink before a show at Liberty Hall or after dropping their kids off at the Lawrence Arts Center,” Elliot says.

That isn’t to say younger people aren’t welcome. The seated environment (no standing room) allows for easy conversation without the hustle and bustle of loud crowds and better suits mature patrons.

On the wall next to the bar is a giant mural by artist Brian Timmer depicting the abolitionist Brown in a prohibition-era scene surrounded by local celebrities in a Mass. Street celebration. The low-lit front room, which is lined with velvet-tufted wallpaper, has a couple of tables made from old liquor barrels, booths and a few bar stools. In the front corner is the “living room” with two lounge chairs and ottomans stationed on a small platform.

Farther back behind a red velvet rope is the quieter reservation or “invitation-only” area with two television screens displaying black and white movies. Tables can be reserved at no cost, or the entire “dining room” or adjacent “poker room” both seating 20 can be rented with a $100 deposit.

If you go

John Brown’s Underground, 7 E. Seventh St., is open from noon to 2 a.m. daily. Reservations can be made in person.

Just drop by during the day to put in a request or ask to be seated in the back room upon arrival, Elliot says.

“We have about six reservations on the book through October, so I think as word gets out we will start to fill up,” says bar manager Kate Brubacher. “We have had an inquiry from someone who wants to book the entire place for her daughter’s graduation in May.”

Brubacher served as a consultant in developing the drink menu in February before even receiving her job offer. Previously a bartender at 715, Brubacher impressed Elliot with her research on the history of cocktails, self-taught mixology skills and cocktail catering services.

“In all of my research I was trying to hybridize [cocktails] with my gardening,” Brubacher says. “That I grow as much of it as I can, and that all of the drink inspirations are from what is seasonal and locally available.”

She and Elliot took note from “father of bartending” Jerry Thomas and “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion” of craft cocktail recipes.

The goal was to achieve a perfect balance of both recognizable and more obscure drinks using a few simple ingredients to bring patrons an exciting, authentic experience out of their comfort zone.

The Pisco Sour is a well-known cocktail, Brubacher says, but people refrain from trying it because of the raw egg whites. The classic martini may look ordinary, but Brubacher brought it back to its traditional incarnation by serving it ice cold in a curved coupe martini glass, with just a twist.

“The coupe is the proper vessel from its time,” she says. “Just a couple of ounces of gin or vodka, and slurp it down while it’s still cold.”

John Brown’s Underground is required to make at least 55 percent of its total sales come from food rather than alcohol because the space was formerly home to Game Guy, and not a pure bar.

After recruiting Sarah Hess, former head chef at The Burger Stand, the team developed a small food menu of pub fare. The five items on the menu (so far) include burgers, bratwurst, broccoli and cauliflower basket, pretzel rolls and spiced nuts. Elliot boasts about Hess’ homemade raspberry jalapeno jam for sliders.

A phyllo dough pouch with chocolate, almonds, house-made nougat folded into it, and salted caramel ice cream will soon join the menu.

“We’ve got an artist behind the bar and an artist in the kitchen,” Elliot says.