If something feels good there’s usually somebody out there trying to ban it. When it comes to booze all kinds of whacked out religious types ranging from Christians to Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims have tried to ban it. Jews haven’t tried to ban booze, they just try to make you drink kosher wine which pretty much puts everyone off.
I was in the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Bohemia where they had just announced a ban on spirits. Someone was adulterating the good stuff with methanol, which can make you go blind. As hangovers go, that must rank amongst the worst. The Bohemians took it in their stride; every drinking hole I visited in Prague had a different interpretation of the ban!
I have huge admiration for the Czechs. Their ancient nation had a horrible 20th century. The Nazis and the Russian Communists wiped out two thirds of the population of Prague, during World War 2. The communists then ruled for over 40 years with an iron fist. Yet the “Velvet Revolution” that freed them was bloodless. There can’t be that many revolutions led by a poet, who then celebrated with a jazz jam session with President Bill Clinton on sax. And they love Absinthe.
The problem with Prague is that it’s over run by drunken Brits. Most nationals behave badly when they travel overseas. Americans are famously loud, boorish and larger than life, or sometimes just large. Brits are drunk and randy; they gather in Prague for extended stag and hen weekends. Given that more than 50% of marriages in the UK end in divorce, there is a perverse logic to celebrating impending doom and huge expense by getting shit faced and sleeping with someone whose name you won’t remember. A British woman wearing a flashing “L” sign and smelling of weed and lager blocked my escape route one night. We tried talking but she was more stoned than an Arabian adulteress…
Escaping randy drunks and the slightly gangsterish Eastern European nouveau riche, I made my way to Bugsy’s, one of Prague’s finest cocktail lounges. Bugsy’s (as in Bugsy Malone’s) is a basement venue with vaulted ceilings bathed in soft red lighting. A DJ was spinning a sophisticated Buddha Bar-like sound track. Bugsy’s celebrates a properly old world drinking experience. The cocktail menu is published as a lavish book, featuring sexy, black and white illustrations. There is a huge cigar case by the entrance. Most things are legal in Prague, including smoking in bars and prostitution.
Jakob my bartender was knowledgeable about all there was on offer at the bar. He carefully talked me through the tasting notes on their extensive selection of Cuban and Dominican cigars and helped me select a medium bodied Dominican Ti Amo tubelo which he said should last me about 40 minutes. “A woman is a woman, but a cigar is a good smoke,” opined one of his regulars, approving of my selection. He looked like a man who’d know.
The cocktails ranged from gloriously traditional to wonderfully creative, with some uniquely Czech twists along the way. The Martini Number One was a very traditional gin martini with orange bitters – the original martini recipe usually included bitters. The Thai Tini featured coriander vodka with watermelon – a light, delicate drink. I had a fabulous twist on an Old Fashioned made with Japanese plum whisky and homemade pineapple and white pepper bitters. The sweetness of the plum whisky stood up well to the peppery bite of the bitters. Becherovka, an herbal bitters which is the Czech national drink, featured in the Lolita, topped with sparkling wine and lychee. Becherovka is a pleasant aperitif by itself, tasting of anise and cinnamon, not dissimilar to a pastis. In the Lolita it added bottom and complexity to a long drink.
The Czechs have a proud old tradition of brewing some of the world’s finest pilsners. The original Budweiser, brewed since 1785 and sold under the
Budweiser Budvar label in Western Europe is a complex beer – a far cry from the watery American brew of the same name. It is sold as Czechvar in the US. Pilsner Urquell however, is the Czech Republic’s most celebrated beer; the world’s first pilsner beer, brewed since 1840 in Pilsen.
At Ambient Lokal, a funky pub which featured huge steel vats of unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, the party trick is to vary the levels of Carbon Dioxide in your beer. “Sweet”, “slice” and “creme” pours feature increasing levels of CO2. The creme is basically a glass of thick foamy head – surprisingly refreshing and slightly sweet. One has to drink it quickly before it settles.
I couldn’t taste the absinthe because of the spirits ban but I did try the local pear brandy, a delightfully clear palate cleanser reminiscent of grappa.
Prague has a lot to offer. While traditional Czech cuisine is a bit heavy on meat and potatoes, there are some very good international restaurants. Kampa Park, under the Charles Bridge is a particular favourite with great food and superb views of the old town. Ask for a table at water level. By the time you read this you may even be able to drink the absinthe again. Cheers! Na zdravi!