Worth Czeching out Prague

Worth Czeching out Prague

Prague is known for great beer.But what about whisky? Jefferson Chase went in hunt of the perfect Czech whisky retailer

Travel | 09 Sep 2005 | Issue 50 | By Jefferson Chase

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Despite living for years near the border between Western and Eastern Europe, I’d never been to Prague. The disinclination to battle millions of tourists – many seduced by discount airfares and the prospect of a cheap piss-up – simply outweighed the undeniable charm of one of the world’s loveliest cities.Finally, I decided to take the plunge – but with a twist. Although my research assistant Google warned me that the Czech capital was not a whisky drinking town, I made it my mission to find a good dram on the banks of the Vltava. After all, I reasoned, it wasn’t long ago that Prague was considered the cutting edge capital of the New Europe. What could possibly go wrong?The first thing that struck me about Prague’s Old Town was that, although Vaclev Havel may have been a fan of the Velvet Underground, ordinary Czechs have yet to master the subtleties of Western rock music.Yesterday’s hits blare everywhere in shops and restaurants, usually disrupting the very image the establishment is trying to project.The second thing I noticed was that I was lost. No matter how carefully I studied my map, I kept arriving back at the Old Town Square, dogged by the same 10,000 fellow map wielders who seemed to have been pursuing me since I set foot in the city.Terrified, I just started running south and was lucky enough to stumble across the Kavarna Velryba (Opatovicka 24).Velryba means ‘whale’ – although the wrought-iron skeleton above the entrance looked to me more like that of a large herring.No matter. Velryba is one of the last remaining student cafés in central Prague, a down-toearth place devoted in equal measures to eating and drinking, with an uproarious ‘art’ gallery in the basement.The food is first-rate Czech pub grub, and for a digestif you can choose between some 20 small-batch bourbons and single malts, including a 1970 Aberlour and a 21 year old Springbank.Sadly, language difficulties and the din of the afternoon regulars foiled my attempt to find out more about the history of the place.But having just enjoyed a fantastic lateafternoon lunch with drinks for less than 10 Euros, I didn’t really care.My next stop was the intriguingly named Alcohol Bar (Dusni 6), whose website sported a picture of four women in bikinis, made up like the members of the rock band KISS, and the endearing promise “Our live music pleases you every day.” A ironic must-see, clearly, especially with 70 whiskies on stock as a social lubricant.All the greater my shock when, having descended a flight of stairs into a large renovated basement, I was assaulted by the sounds of Bon Jovi and a young American tourist bellowing, “I’m a redneck, baby. Do you know what that means?” Fortunately I found a good seat at the bar, where I corralled manager Daniel Blatil.“We’re trying to find a way to encourage whiskey connoisseurs,” he told me. “There’s a small group of people who understand it and they’re committed.” Glenmorangie, he said, was the crowd favourite – among cocktails, Manhattans were the flavour of the day.I ordered a 1989 Rosebank from Signatory with its “velmi vyrazne aroma,” and found myself tapping on an imaginary wah-wah pedal and enjoying the Alcohol Bar’s incongruous vibe. But I didn’t see anyone beside myself making use of its selection of spirits. There clearly was whisky in Prague.The question was: did anyone drink it?It turns out there’s good reason that the otherwise alcohol-friendly Czechs are only beginning to explore the water of life. The next day Mikael Kratovel, owner of the Kratochvilovci whisky shop (Tynska 15), explained.“You used to have to get a permit from the health department for every individual brand of spirits. It cost 10,000 Czech crowns or around 300 Euros. You’d go broke, if you offered a wide selection.” That law has now been lifted, and Kratovel is among a handful of young Prague residents trying to change drinking habits in the city.His shop is located a stone’s throw from the Old Town Square, but the street is well enough concealed that the tourist masses miss it.Kratovel’s pioneer spirit is infectious.His face positively lit up when we compared impressions of his current top recommendation, a cask-strength Highland Park from Blackadder. And although Kratochvilovci only opened for business in 2004, low alcohol taxes make it an attractive address for minor bargains on older vintages and rare bottlings.Four doors down is Prague’s other whisky bar per se. Bar and Books (Tynska 19) is the Czech outpost of the establishment of the same name in New York. It’s run by Martina Pestova, a seven year veteran of the Big Apple whose blue eyes left my nerves in need of alcoholic assistance.“When you’re 15 in Prague, you can drink,” says Pestova, when asked why she spent so long abroad. “When you’re 21, what else are you going to do?” That no-nonsense spirit has rubbed off on Bar and Books, where the potentially humdrum library decor was offset by You Only Live Twice on the TV and Sticky Fingers on the stereo.In addition to being a cool place to sit and chill, Bar and Books offers ‘tasting flights’– series of six small measures that allow patrons to get acquainted with everything from the standard single malts to vintage Van Winkles and older Macallans. They’re at a discount, as are all whiskys on Tuesdays.There are also tasting events and, on Mondays, free cigars for the ladies.“I always seat them by the window to pull in men,” says Pestova with a mischievous capitalist wink. “There’s something sexy about women smoking cigars.” My last stop was Dynamo (Pstrossova 29), one of Prague’s most highly touted restaurants, the winner of a 1999 Best Interior award. The food, nouvelle Czech cuisine, more than lived up to its advanced billing, and another highlight came when I scanned the list of some 80 single malts afterward.“Around a year ago four Russians came in and ordered shots of it,” said waitress Jirina Svarcova, when I asked to see proof that Dynamo did indeed possess the bottle of Black Bowmore it claimed on the menu.Well-travelled owner Tomas Smidek, she added, is a collector, who put some of his private stocks on the shelves when he opened the establishment.“Would you like to order one?” she asked, hopeful of landing another big score. I hastily opted for a Strathisla with no ice, which I savoured to the strains of Santana and a few thoughts about a strange city.Fifteen minutes by foot, I knew, and a world away, packs of louts prowling for cheap lager were marring the architectural beauty of Wenceslas Square. Like many Eastern European destinations, Prague is still struggling with how to market its attractions without selling out its charm.My search for a good dram uncovered a number of young Czechs who realize that cheapest isn’t usually best. It was to them I raised my glass before heading home.
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