Englert to host evening of speakeasy-style Scotch tasting, music


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Peter Balestrieri’s grandfather was a mason by trade, but throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, he operated a very different business from his home: bootlegging.

“During Prohibition, families were doing this to get through increasingly hard times,” Balestrieri said. “My Mom can still remember filling bottles and going to the backdoor, where people would come to buy wine or half-pints of different kinds of liquor but also cordials and liqueurs, which are very social things that you offer to company. It stayed pretty much within the neighborhood.”

Though bootlegging led to some jail time for Balestrieri’s grandfather, the camaraderie-based style of business is reflected in the Englert Theater’s Speakeasy Series, which hosts spirit samplings in a Prohibition-Era environment. This Friday, the second Englert Speakeasy event will feature an evening of Scotch tasting, including samples of four Scotch whiskys, food and hors d’oeuvres, socialization, and saxophone music presented by Balestrieri himself.

Englert Developmental Director Katie Roche said the idea for the series — the first of which was a rye-whiskey tasting on June 22, 2012 — came about during the Englert’s centennial celebrations.

“We were looking at things that happened in the first decades of the theater, and Prohibition was obviously a big part of history,” she said. “We thought it’d be fun to give the theater the speakeasy treatment and change the way people think of the space.”

This adaptation includes having guests enter the Englert “speakeasy style” through the theater’s back door, holding the event on the original 1912 stage with the curtains closed to create an intimate venue, and featuring 1920s and ’30s movies and music during the tasting.

“You’re led into this warm, friendly, happy space,” said Balestrieri, who is a special-collections librarian at the University of Iowa and a former saxophone player for the Violent Femmes. “The last [Speakeasy event] I did was one of the best shows I’ve ever played. I kind of fill in the gaps with music and stories from my family, bootlegging, and Prohibition, while letting people talk and enjoy themselves, and I’m happy to fulfill that role.”

The four Scotch whiskys will be provided by John’s Grocery, 401 S. Market St., and each will be served with a bite of complementary food provided by Bread Garden Market or Oxford’s New Orleans-focused Augusta Restaurant. John’s will also offer specialized drink glasses for guests.

“You don’t want to serve a 16-year-old Scotch in a plastic cup,” Roche said. “There’s no low-brow Scotch on the agenda.”

Dave Burt, a native of Scotland and a former owner of the Red Avocado, will help pour the Scotch during the two tastings and offer insights on the flavors and places of origin.

“I hope there’s a bit of appreciation of the nuances and the differences in the layers and levels,” he said. “I want guests to take away the variety and the lineage and heritage of the Scotch. Half will know some of it already, and the other half will come ready to learn.”

Roche said she believes locals are enticed by the fresh experience the Englert Speakeasy Series offers, with the last event attracting crowds nearly twice as numerous as the available tickets.

“It’s a little more common to have spirit-tasting events in larger cities, so we might be on the cusp of something new and exciting,” she said.

The setting certainly appealed to Balestrieri, who — in addition to having a plethora of stories about his own family during the Prohibition Era — said he has long been “fascinated” with the music, movies, literature, and attitudes of the 1920s and ’30s.

“I like trying to capture some of the spirit of the Jazz Age — some of that wildness, that feeling that times are changing,” he said. “It’s a hot era, and I’m really happy to be able to connect to and promote that history.”

What: Englert Speakeasy: An Evening of Scotch Tasting
When: First tasting at 7 p.m., second tasting at 9:30 p.m., Friday
Where: Englert, 221 E. Washington
Admission: $25 in advance, $30 day of show. Open only to patrons 21 and older.

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