212 Brick Lane, E1 6RL
The world of pop-up bars is taking Londoners on a completely unique and ‘sentencing’ journey, into one of the most famous prisons in the US – Alcatraz.
As a maximum high-security prison, San Francisco’s Alcatraz was known to be a ‘last resort prison’ until the early ’60s. It was home to some of the worst of the worst criminals who were considered to have no hope of rehabilitation. In the middle of Brick Lane, the prison has been recreated as a new pop up bar dubbed Alcotraz. Having never been inside a prison, I am intrigued by what the night will bring… and about getting those cuffs out.*
“Take off your jacket, quickly, NOW and put this suit on, I said NOW,” someone shouts as I enter.
This venue is dark and dingy. I change into a bright orange suit while my fellow convicts and I are warned about the dangers of carrying contraband, (in this case alcohol) while a crooked cop flashes us his flask.
Once we are all dressed, we are ordered to get in line, walk towards the Warden and head into the ‘prison’ where are assigned prison cells await. The Warden is a bible loving correction officer who believes that inmates can be saved by turning to Jesus… good luck with that.
Once my inmates and I are settled into our assigned cell, we are greeted (under the radar) with a Bellini cocktail in a metallic cup and some water. The metallic cup makes this prosseco-based cocktail much less glamorous. Prison is a new environment to me but this recreation of Alcatraz feels very real and I feel somewhat transported. The owner Sam Shearman had flown to Alcatraz Island to try and replicate much of the decor for this pop-up. A real toilet resides in the corner with two chairs, a small table attached to the wall, a bunk, a shelf with books and a few pictures to decorate each cell wall… plus the four of us. It’s surprising how many things they managed to fit in this small space and how the dim lighting really adds to the gloomy atmosphere.
After we’ve finished our welcome drinks, the Warden announces that they suspect someone is smuggling in contraband and that anyone caught will be sent to the ‘hole’ (also known as solitary confinement). We’re extra careful to not get caught with the alcohol so we hide it under a blanket. From across our cell, I can see what looks like the bar which has other ‘inmates’ serving drinks. It looks very much like a ‘prison’s commissary’ with a little hole on the glass window to communicate.
When the Warden leaves, one of the ‘bar inmates’ approaches us casually. He asks if we have any alcohol so he can make us a drink. We show him a bottle of gin which he carefully sneaks under his shirt and leaves. He comes back with a fresh cocktail made out of elderflower, apple juice, lime and the gin- simple but effective. Alcotraz intends to remove the pressure of choice by passing it on to the bartenders, ensuring we’re able to relax and enjoy our surroundings. Before attending, they ask you to bring your own bottle of spirit (BYOB), for which they will use and mix themselves.
Whilst I’m sipping the drink, we have a random cell inspection. We hide our contraband well enough that it’s not found. They begin searching but it feels like a bit of invasion of privacy in such a small space.
Knowing that I only have another 45 minutes left in ‘prison’, I quickly try to catch one of the bartender’s attention and ask for the next drink. The second drink was a Bramble gin. It’s another simple but tasty drink, with lime, sugar syrup, blueberries and gin. We start hearing the Warden shout random numbers which correspond to the ones on our bright orange suits. About six or eight inmates are called to stand outside their cells to be taken to the ‘hole’ for punishment on suspicion of smuggling. I’m not called out but I never found out what happened in the hole… but I heard rumours of a free shot.
As I consider one last drink, the Warden shouts out that we have all been released and unfortunately that means our time is up. At only £30 per person for three drinks with an immersive experience, it’s really a bargain- and you get a free ‘show’. I would have hoped to have been able to try one more drink and for the cocktails to have had a bit more creativity. With the craze of Orange is the New Black, I wondered why this hasn’t been done sooner. It hit the jackpot for something different and new. Time to get naughty and get wearing that fashionable orange.
Alcotraz is opened until 17th of December 2017.
*Let’s not forget that for us its a ‘thrilling experience’ coming from the perspective of free men and women, but for others its a harsh reality.
“The first night is the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it. Shawshank Redepmtion.”