On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution was officially ratified, marking the end of a nearly 14-year nationwide ban on alcohol.
In Whatcom County, this Prohibition era lasted even longer, as cities like Bellingham and Ferndale went dry in 1911; the entire state of Washington followed in 1918. Like elsewhere in the country, Whatcom County folks found their way around the Volstead Act, operating speakeasies and smuggling bootleg booze across the Canadian border by hiding it in unsuspecting pieces of furniture.
Until recently, there was no Whatcom County establishment where you could adequately pay tribute to the Noble Experiment’s failure. But now you can thanks to the November 2023 opening of Smuggler’s Tunnel Speak Easy Spirits Room, located in the former basement storage area of Blaine’s Gateway 1890 Taphouse & Grill.
Here, one can relax on plushly-upholstered seats, sip Prohibition-inspired craft cocktails, and enjoy the dimly-lit ambiance with good company. The new bar is owned by Gary and Kristen Slavin, the same Blaine couple that’s operated Gateway 1890 since it opened in late 2021.
“I really wanted to see Blaine have something more than just a basic ‘walk-in bar’ type idea,” says Gary, 55. “We knew there was so much space here that we had to think of something for the basement.”
Both the taphouse and spirits room were also part of the vision of Slavin’s late business partner Mike Mulder. A framed picture of Mulder, who passed away in the summer of 2021, hangs on a wall inside the speakeasy.
Digging for Loot
With half the building’s basement taken up by the taphouse prep kitchen, the other half was initially a tunnel-like void. When it came time to create the bar, Slavin leaned into the aesthetic, fashioning it in the style of an old mining tunnel that could have been used to illegally smuggle alcohol.
The front door to the bar has mining-related décor, and wood beams are arranged like mining support timbers throughout the seating area. Each table has a lantern light styled like a miner’s lamp, and a large image of an actual mining tunnel fully covers one of the bar’s far walls.
“We’ve had so many people come in here and say, ‘Where’s this tunnel go?’” Slavin says, laughing.
Other décor includes a large vintage steamer trunk thought to be from the early 1900s, with numerous faux $100 bills hanging out the sides. Photos of famous Prohibition-era moments and figures — including Al Capone — cover the walls. Two television screens play old black and white movies, and jazz-based background music further enhances the atmosphere.
“I feel like I’m not in Blaine, I’m not in Seattle, I’m not in whatever city,” Slavin says of being in the room at night. “I feel like I’ve actually travelled back in time somewhere.”
While Slavin’s place isn’t really a tunnel, criminals have actually built smuggling tunnels beneath our nearby border. In July 2005, law enforcement shut down a 360-foot-long drug tunnel near the Lynden border crossing, running from the living room floor of a house along Boundary Road to a greenhouse along British Columbia’s Zero Avenue.
Authorities observed the tunnel’s construction for months before arresting three men inside it while they were making a run. The tunnel was later filled in with concrete, according to a Bellingham Herald article.
The story inspired the bar to create “The Greenhouse,” an absinthe-based cocktail with a refreshing mint and cucumber profile.
Secret Menus and Fine Spirits
In addition to higher-end, top-shelf hooch, Smuggler’s Tunnel relies on as many regional craft-distilled spirits as possible.
Slavin says they’re hoping to collaborate more with Probably Shouldn’t Distillery — a small-batch, Everson operation whose old aging barrels make up some of the bar’s entrance décor. Projects include a bartender-created cocktail menu using their products, and a possible Smuggler’s Tunnel-inspired bottle of something down the line, he adds.
‘Secret’ menus also make Smuggler’s Tunnel a fun place to drink: bar patrons can currently receive an exclusive menu of bartender-and-owner-created cocktails by mentioning the phrase “cat’s pajamas” to their server.
The code phrase “giggle water” also grants access to the “18th Amendment” menu, comprised of Prohibition-era cocktails, appetizers, and sharing plates. Slavin is partial to “The Last Word,” a gin-based cocktail made with green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and fresh lime juice.
Several “above ground” appetizers are also featured on their “21st Amendment” menu.
The bar is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 9 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and access can be found through the back parking lot tapyard gate. It’s strictly 21 and up, and seating is first-come, first-serve. There are no reservations, and while Slavin says it can get pretty busy, one usually doesn’t have to wait long for a seat.
If toasting Prohibition’s demise — and anything else you have to celebrate — in a cozy and classy setting sounds good, a trip to Smuggler’s Tunnel might very well be your cat’s pajamas.