Old-fashioned speakeasy jazzes up Fondren nightlife

Something is brewing in the back of the landmark Brent’s Drugs eatery that has the whole Fondren Arts District buzzing with a clandestine excitement not seen since the Roaring Twenties.

It is 8:30 on a warm July weeknight and the parking lot of the Woodland Hills Shopping District in Jackson is dark and mostly empty except for a few late shoppers at McDade’s Grocery.

The historic Brent’s Drugs cafe is also dark on the inside as are its neighboring merchants. To the naked eye the eatery appears closed for the day. Looks are deceiving.

The Apothecary at Brent's Drugs in Jackson is modeled after the illegal speakeasies of the Prohibition Era.

The Apothecary at Brent’s Drugs in Jackson is modeled after the illegal speakeasies of the Prohibition Era.

The front door to the pharmacy turned retro soda shop gives way with inviting ease and music and laughter can be heard faintly through the back walls of the darkened restaurant.

After a titillating walk past the booths where Skeeter and Hilly sat in the Oscar-nominated film “The Help,” visitors come to an even darker hallway.

A curtain is suddenly pulled. “Welcome to the Apothecary,” someone says.

“People like that idea of being in a place where they’re not supposed to be,” says Brad Reeves, co-owner of the Apothecary at Brent’s, one of Jackson’s newest nightspots. “It’s a little exclusive. Not everybody knows about it.”

The idea for a Prohibition-era inspired bar began fermenting in Reeves’ head more than two years ago as he looked around the mostly empty storage room behind his famous eatery. The Brent’s soda fountain had been written up in several magazines especially after “The Help” premiered in 2011 and the Jackson-born Reeves was ready for the next step. “We don’t want to be stale. We want to be a work in process,” he says.

“I said we should do something special with the storeroom,” co-owner Jonathan Shull said. A friend of Reeves’ since high school, Shull was enlisted to use his graphic design and hospitality branding experience to turn all the elements into an experience.

The millennial alchemists quickly became nerds on Prohibition, speakeasies and cocktail bars even making trips to classic bars from Atlanta to Austin.

Inside the Apothecary, the candlelit din of happy patrons is punctured only by big band music floating from a hidden speaker.

Bartenders with black aprons and gelled hair pour, shake and stir; grasping for fruit, salt and bitters as they make the perfect cocktail. Behind them are original pharmacist shelves that have been refinished and stocked with the finest vintage adult beverages including Mississippi staples like Cathead Vodka from Gluckstadt and Southern Prohibition from Hattiesburg.

“The experience is something unique for Jackson,” Shull says. “It’s not just a bar. It tells the story of classic cocktail bars when they were the really special place to go. It’s about having a classy, sophisticated place to be around the table with people you love.”

So much can happen over drinks from first dates to job interviews and the Apothecary has something for any occasion.

Jonathan Shull (left) and Brad Reeves (right) are the co-owners of the The Apothecary.

Jonathan Shull (left) and Brad Reeves (right) are the co-owners of the The Apothecary.

The Apothecary’s signature Doc Noble (cayenne pepper, infused rye, demerara and lemon) is named after an old Jackson druggist and has a sweet and spicy almost holiday taste.

Most men that pull up to the marble-topped bar might prefer the standard whiskey Old Fashioned while ladies gathered at a nearby table order the Pink Phosphorescent house cocktail (gin, grapefruit oleo, phosphate, lemon and creme de mure).

Teetotaling customers can still enjoy the Apothecary atmosphere while sipping on a non-alcoholic “temperance drink,” beverages that Reeves say are trending nationwide.

“I didn’t want people to say you know I used to go to Brent’s before it turned into a bar,” Reeves says. “We’re not serving cocktails out front. You can be a family restaurant and have a bar. You can balance those things you just have to have that distinction.”

Apothecary bartenders look for “farm to plate” organic ways to make the cocktails from homemade tonic water and pecan-soaked rye to hand-squeezed fruit juice.

“Pre-Prohibition in the 19th century a bartender wasn’t just a bartender,” Reeves says. “It was a craft. You were a chef. You made everything from scratch and you didn’t tell anyone your recipes.”

Despite having no signage or advertising campaign planned, Reeves is confident that The Apothecary and upcoming hotspots like it will continue to be the toast of the town.

“We think that people may say, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to eat (or drink) but I’m going to Fondren,’’’ he says.

>>The Apothecary at Brent’s Drugs

Address: 655 Duling Avenue, Jackson

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight

Phone: (601) 366-3427

Website: facebook.com/apothecaryjackson

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