NJ whiskey lover transforms basement into swanky speakeasy

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It’s the roaring ’20s – in Jersey.

Two months ago, frustrated whiskey lover Philip Alongi could see that his 800-bottle collection of bourbon, scotch and rye was spilling over. And, with three increasingly curious kids under 5 at home, he knew that he needed to find a safer storage solution for his private stock fast.

Then a snootful of inspiration flashed: his quintessential suburban basement in Westfield, NJ – a “dungeon” studded with laundry accoutrements, cobwebs and an old boxing bag – was the perfect bling tiger.

“I was literally just trying to find a place where I can hide the goods from my three little monsters — something discreet and secure, like a speakeasy,” said Alongi, 41, a news veteran, two-time Emmy Award winner and amateur opera singer, who runs a production TV company. “I figured what better time than now while I’m trapped at home?”

With his wife’s blessing, Alongi rolled up his sleeves and joined the ranks of the nation’s pandemic home improvement hobbyists. He began to design and build a Prohibition-inspired bar in the 22-by-13 room with a “1920s speakeasy feel,” he said.

Relying on photos of his favorite whiskey bars and drawing on his own experiences at dozens of tasting rooms he visited in Scotland, Alongi began to conjure up a space authentic enough to transport any 21st-century hooch hound back to the rat-a-tat-tat old days.

But the all-consuming project was no easy sip. Alongi toiled for three hours every single day over six weeks to realize his dream hideaway.

“I just got obsessed,” he said. “And there’s literally nothing else to do.”

He sourced lumber down on the Jersey Shore, driving home on the parkway with an 8 ½-foot golden cedar slab that he somehow shoved into his minivan. He sanded that piece down 100 times and meticulously scraped the bark to create the live edge of his new bar.

Charming touches include a tin ceiling, tufted velvet couches in deep shades, backlit stained glass, framed photos from his last trip to Scotland and a lion’s head door knocker and peep door.

The result: a swanky speakeasy that could easily pass for a fancy members-only club.

“I had to build it, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to experience it,” he said, adding that the project only set him back about $6,000. “This project has been great for both my physical and mental health and is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak time.”

Now, Alongi added that he’s finding all sorts of excuses to spend time downstairs.

“I try to do as many of my Zoom meetings as possible down there,” he said, adding that clients assume it’s a virtual background. “They say, ‘Is that real?’ I got more [Facebook] likes on this than when my kids were born.”  

The project has even inspired him to start a new tradition.

“Every time I open a new bottle, I seal the first two ounces into a lab vial,” he said. “They serve as both a time capsule of whiskies I’ve tried, but also are designed to be opened and shared with my kids when they reach the appropriate age.”

The proud dad pointed out that his 5-year-old daughter is already a little whiskey lover in the making. When the project was completed, she pointed to the racks of bottles and explained to her younger siblings: “These are mine when I grow up.”

“They’ll need the secret password,” he said.

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