BRETTON WOODS, N.H. — My booze comes in a teacup perched on a dainty saucer. If the feds raid the place — and don’t smell the whiskey fumes — no one will be the wiser. And that’s the point.
In the shadow of Mount Washington, in the bowels of the historic Omni Mount Washington Resort Hotel, is The Cave, a Prohibition-era speakeasy walled with granite and stone. Despite the posh hotel upstairs, this is not a trendy bar masquerading as a onetime outlaws’ hangout. This was an illegal establishment.
“About seven feet up and to the right of that post was the old lookout’s window,” says Troy Bushey, one of the bartenders. Tonight, Bushey goes by “Dick,” or whatever name he feels like giving. “That window gave a perfect shot all the way down to Route 302. You could see everything comin’.”
My drink is Prohibition Punch, a secret recipe that tastes something like a scorpion bowl, but stronger. It’s a tribute to The Cave’s notorious past. The hotel opened in 1902, and this subterranean bar sat on a busy bootlegging route from Canada through the mountain wilderness to Boston.
Formerly The Cave Grill, it served upscale food and illegal liquor to celebrities and Boston’s elite. The hotel cannot confirm that US presidents imbibed in The Cave, but they were frequent hotel guests. Babe Ruth was a regular, and Bob Hope performed here in the 1920s.
“There was a lot of action up here,” says Scott Wheeler, a North Country writer who documented Vermont’s bootlegging industry in the book “Rumrunners and Revenuers.” Wheeler says the Mount Washington Valley route probably originated in Quebec.
“It was happening all across the border,” he says.
And when the feds came knocking at The Cave? According to Bushey . . . er, Dick, it was all teacups and squash.
“They’d shut this side down and they’d send two guys out on the squash court,” he says. The court is now the dance floor. “Lord knows how they were standing, but they’d run out there and grab a squash racquet. The feds would poke their heads in, turn around, and that was it.”
The Cave still serves classic cocktails, local craft beer, and a few appetizers. In addition to Prohibition Punch, bold drinkers sip the Dark Manhattan, a potent mix of the hotel’s signature Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Kahlua, sweet vermouth, and bitters, served straight.
Easier drinking can be had with the chocolate tiramisu martini or a lightly hopped Tuckerman’s Pale Ale from nearby Conway. My post-cocktail preference is the hoppy, unfiltered Long Trail IPA from Vermont.
Snacks include a hummus plate, house pickled vegetables and olives, and an antipasti with local cheeses. (For a meal, stop first at Stickney’s Steak and Chop Pub across the hall.)
If you tire of exploring The Cave’s nooks and crannies — some can only be peeked at through iron gates — check out the Sox or Bruins on TV or challenge your mate to mini shuffleboard as you listen to Dean Machine, one of several rock bands that perform regularly.
Better yet, ask Bushey and his bar mate, Rob Libbett, for a story. They’ll be glad to tell you about guests past and present, living and dead. That long black glove that hangs eerily from the rack above the bar? It reportedly belonged to Lady Stickney, the hotel founder’s wife. She’s still here, in spirit.
These days, crowds at The Cave are an interesting mix. Twenty-somethings toast alongside folks celebrating their 30th anniversaries. Bruins and Canadiens players stop by, as do politicians and sweaty hikers.
A word of advice, though. If you order Prohibition Punch, be careful. It’ll sneak up on you faster than the police.
THE CAVE AT OMNI MOUNT WASHINGTON RESORT
310 Mount Washington Hotel Road, Bretton Woods, N.H. 603-278-1000, www.omnihotels.com/hotels/bretton-woods-mount-washington
Lorne Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org