In Prague, Riding the wave of a cocktail Revolution
What was a location is that?
I sat back in my wooden cabin and looked around. Upstairs, the dim lights of the bar shimmered against the molded tin ceiling. It was a tribute, the bartender explained to his favorite bar in New York, the original location of the legendary Milk and Honey, now known as Attaboy.
"Eldridge Street, No. 134, in Chinatown," he said, making a face of happy memory, tinged with a touch of reverence. "I would be a chapel."
Most of us would probably just call it a cocktail, but most of us are not so seriously mixed drinks - and especially about searching for them in the Czech capital Prague.
The Czech Republic is rightly seen as a nation of beer lovers who consumed the highest annual amount of beer per capita. But a surprisingly large number of expatriate Czechs have recently found fame in the international cocktail industry, particularly in London: Artesian regularly ranked as the best bar in the world in numerous competitions, run by the Czech-born Alex Kratena while Pavel (Paul) Tvaroh created the famous Lounge Bohemia, a Czech-themed cocktail bar in Shoreditch.
Elsewhere bartenders like George Nemec and Zdenek Kaštánek a Czech touch to China, Australia introduced - which Mr Nemec was named bartender of the year in 2004 - and Singapore, where the work helped Mr. Kaštánek at 28 Hong Kong Street deserve the best international bar team award at this year's Tales of the Cocktail. Other local barkeeps before we worked back to Prague in New York and elsewhere in the United States.
"Compared with a few years ago, it is much healthier, it is more original, is adventurous, and it is competitive with the rest of the world," said Mr. Nemec, when asked about the changes in Prague cocktail scene . "Now it makes me proud, basically, what I can offer in this city as I foreign guests."
The difference is remarkable. As recently as six years ago, there were only about four or five bars in Prague where you drink as common as an old could order. Today, you can enjoy a relatively obscure classics like the scofflaw, or the Daisy Martinez on more than a dozen bars. Additionally bartenders to create unique variations using local spirits and ingredients, often including the Czech Becherovka herbal liqueur, or the high-grade spirits from the cult Czech distiller Žufánek, all mixed and served to international standards.
That is not to say that Prague cocktail scene is not without a few quirks of its own, as I discovered when I toured the city's best bars, both old and new, this summer.
To begin with, it is certainly not the kind of town where people stop for a restorative on the way home from work. Many of Prague cocktail bars do not open until 6 or 7 pm, and places like the beautiful two-year-old Bonvivant's CTC - where I had my Žufánek Hruskovica acid - usually do not get busy until around midnight. For bars, reservations are a necessity.
Most of the places where you can order the relatively new penicillin - a Scotch-based cocktail made with ginger, lemon and honey - without a second glance in the Old Town of Prague, where a branch of New York's Bar & Books opened in 2004 , joining previous high-end pubs and Bugsy Tretter's. But plenty of decent cocktails are now found in remote districts. Bar & Books opened its second branch in Prague's trendy Vinohrady in 2008, which also saw the arrival of the new Gin Tonic Club - home to 55 types of gin and tonics 11, as well as house specialties - earlier this year.
Even grittier neighborhoods now have delicious cocktails. In street-smart Zizkov, the lowbrow Malkovich bar serves local classics such as the Almond cigar, an amaretto and rum concoction invented by Bugsy's bartender Vaclav Vojir for an international competition where he ranked second.
And districts in the relatively remote area between the Liben and Vysocany (although only a few minutes from the metro station Ceskomoravska), the speakeasy style Innuendo Prohibition Bar serves unusual creations, often made with local ingredients. Innuendo's Elderflower Nail Drambuie acting a rusty nail for a fragrant elderflower syrup, combine a typical homemade ingredient in Central Europe, with a local honey liqueur and 12-year-old blended Scotch in a refreshing but unusual elixir.
Apart from the arrivals in the suburbs, at least nine of the best bars in the city are concentrated in a small area in the center of town; online maps to calculate a walk from one end to the other in 16 minutes, although it might need a little more time if you stop enjoying the architecture. This part of the old town is one of the most attractive, home to some of the most expensive real estate.
This brings another unique feature of Prague cocktail bars: Despite using the same bourbon, whiskey, gin and mixers in bars anywhere else in the world, the drinks in Prague are often very affordable. At Bugsy's, a stone's throw from the city Hermès and Cartier boutiques, a spot-on Singapore Sling costs 165 krona, or about $ 7 at 23 crown to the dollar. The moody Black Angels, right on touristy Old Town Square, a Corpse Reviver No. 2 costs 135 crowns, less than half of what you would pay in a trendy bar in New York or London.
The growing popularity of cocktails is also distributed to restaurants. The year-old restaurant Agave has a great cocktail list, usually based on tequila and mezcal, connect with its cleverly updated Mexican food. If you've never had tamales and habanero sauce with an old-fashioned made with 23-year-old Zacapa rum, you're missing.
"They go together like, beef and bourbon, is not it?" Early Juraj Filo, the general director of George Prime Steaks, an upscale steakhouse with a strong cocktail list which is usually bourbon-based. He estimated that 50 percent of the guests at his restaurant ordered cocktails before dinner, and about 10 percent stuck with cocktails through their meals instead of wine; many also had a chocolate martini or other cocktail instead of dessert. "It is a part of the North American steak house culture."
That's true, that's probably why it feels still rare in Central Europe. Despite the newcomers, Prague now has only one bar on the list of 50 best bars in the world - the great Hemingway Bar, currently ranked No. 24 - but that's one more than Vienna, the capital next over. (Berlin, a city three times the size of Prague also has a bar on the list.) That means that many of the best cocktail bars here are pretty serious about what they do: it is not as serious as anything from DJ Dave's "Mixologist" video, but close.
During my nights in Prague, a friend was refused entry by the doorman at Tretter's, apparently because he wore sandals, even though the temperature at the time was more than 90 degrees. The presentation on many Prague bars can free (himself) seriously, as well, in both good and bad ways.
At Hemingway's house-barrel aged rum old fashioned served in a bottle arrives in a hollowed-out book of Hemingway's short stories, while Hemingway's Paparazzi (Havana Club rum, Becherovka, apricot brandy, sugar, apricot and chocolate tea, fresh lime and fresh mint) is served in a high-speed Canon camera lens. At the six-month-old L'Fleur, a deliberate scorched antiquarian book of the Czech poet Rudolf Tesnohlidek serves as a tray for the Decadent, take the Armagnac based on the Sazerac. The good side of this presentation is that it is fun and intellectually stimulating. But if you just stopped for a quick one, you might find it a bit much.
One exception: Only the new Cash, a sister bar Hemingway, but in this case a much younger sister, someone very different tastes. Where Hemingway is serious and cool, playing jazz and lounge music, Cash Only is footloose and pleasure, offering 95-crown hotdogs and snacks and play contemporary emo and rock tracks that just might make you feel old. In some ways, it feels more like a cocktail bar and more like a long, narrow dance club.
I thought the drinks were, however, just as well as elsewhere, and equally inventive: The house special on my visit, called Popcorn Sour, was based on a rum that the bartenders were drenched with hot buttered popcorn, shaken with lemon juice and simple syrup, then sieved and served with a topping of fresh popcorn. Of all the pictures that I shared with my friends on Facebook, this is a deserved most attention.
Despite the growth in the bar scene, there is more to come. Prague recently saw the opening of an unlisted, pop-up version of London's Lounge Bohemia, while a new branch of Bar & Books opened in the Polish capital Warsaw.
It's enough to make you think that Prague is a center for the cocktail culture in the Old World. But local experts will take issue with that claim, with rumors about the exciting new bar scene in Brno, the second largest city of the Czech Republic, about three hours to the southeast. According to rumor, a brand new bar called Brno Super Panda Circus has the best cocktail list in the country.
At least for now.
IF YOU WILL BE
Where to drink
Bugsy's, Parizska 10 (treden op Kostecna Street); bugsysbar.cz.
Tretter's, V Kolkovne 3; tretters.cz.
Bar & Books, Tynska 19 en Manesova 64; trbarandbooks.cz.
Hemingway Bar, Karoliny Svetle 26; emingwaybar.cz.
Bonvivant's CTC, Bartolomejska 3; facebook.com/BONVIVANTsCTC.
Anonyme Bar, Michalska 12; anonymousbar.cz.
Public Interest, U Milosrdnych 12; publicinterest.cz.
Parlour, Krakovska 15; parlour.cz.
Alleen contant geld, Liliova 3; cashonlybar.cz.
Black Angels, Staromestske Namesti 29; blackangelsbar.cz.
Innuendo Prohibition Bar, Kurta Konrada 20; prohibitionbar.cz.
L'Fleur, V Kolkovne 5; lfleur.cz.
Gin Tonic Club, Vinohradska 45; gintonicclub.com.
Malkovich Bar, Borivojova 100; facebook.com/malkovichbar.
Where to eat
George Prime Steak, Platnerska 19; georgeprimesteak.com. A sleek, American-style steakhouse. Mains around 900 crown; Cocktails 205 crown.
Agave, Masna 2; agaverestaurant.cz. Modern Mexican cuisine with more than a hint of spice. Mains, 225-545 crown; cocktails 138-338 crown.