Spirits of the Night
The Czech Republic is renowned for the quality of its beer, but it takes no time at all to discover that the country has a garden variety of local spirits to offer as well. Following age old Czech tradition, 101 herbs, spices and other by-products of farm, forest and garden are distilled, fermented, aged and bottled for your satisfaction.
The tastes are exotic as the names and in just a short while you can experience the etymology of absinth, becherovka, slivovice, fernet and more. Just be sure to begin the night with a hearty Czech meal, arrange a spare day to recover and you'll be ready to tour the world of Czech spirits.
The original absinth was a cloudy green drink with a slight yellow tint invented as a health tonic in the late 18th century and popularized by Henri Louis Pernod in the early 19th. By the turn of the 20th century two million liters were being consumed annually in France alone. It was popular with artists, philosophers and other supposed "degenerates" and was therefore a "bohemian" drink, ripe for illegalization when the temperance movement came along in the years leading up to the First World War.
For the next ninety years it remained dormant, produced and drunk only by a small group of connoisseurs in Spain and Portugal. With the fall of the iron curtain the owner of Prague´s own Akropolis club decided the time was due for a revival and started selling Czech own brand Absinth. Soon tourists were bringing bottles back to Britain, where an oversight in the law had left it legal. Magazines like Loaded and Select devoted articles to the mythology of the drink and the Czech company Hills saw a gap in the market and rushed to fill it. To this day you can sometimes pay £10 ($18) for a small shot in a London bar.
So what is the big fuss about? Many people will tell you that the presence of thujone from wormwood gives the drink psychoactive properties, but they may well be mistaken. Laboratory testing has shown that the amount of the substance needed to produce any effect is 8.5 mg, equivalent to an entire bottle of Hills (for example), but by the time you've drunk that much, you may well be either dead or passed out under a bar. Absinth purists will tell you that the pleasant effects are due to a "delicate balance of herbs" though they will also tell you Czech absinth "strays furthest from the original recipe" or even "isn't absinth at all."
The real draw of Czech brands is the obvious one, alcohol. At between 60 and 80 percent proof, absinth is one of the most potent drinks available for general sale, and constitutes one of the most obvious traps for first time visitors. On my first day in the city a New Zealander I met drank half a bottle neat and promptly broke his leg falling off the balcony of our hostel. With the equivalent of 4 large beers in each shot it's a miracle more tourists don't injure themselves, or even die of alcohol poisoning.
Having said all that, you may well still want some, so here's what you do to make it sweet and warm enough to drink without gagging. Take one large shot of absinth, one teaspoon, some sugar and a glass of water. Fill your spoon with sugar. Gently tip the shot and lower the spoon into it, so the sugar is moistened but not swimming. Light the spoon on fire. If you've done it right the spoon shouldn't drip, but just in case, hold it over the glass of water. Be patient - after a minute the mixture will begin to bubble. Tip it back into the shot glass, stir briefly and blow out the flame. Give it another quick stir and down it all at once, followed by the water. If blowing out the flame is too tame for you, putting your hand tightly over the glass creates a vacuum and should extinguish the fire without damaging your skin, even if the bar and floor are in flames. Alternatively, for a longer drink, just add water to your absinth as you would to pastis.
Hills Absinth - Described variously as "mouthwash" "windex" and "not technically absinth" Hills is the Starbucks of the absinth world - unpopular but ubiquitous, and it's probably what you've got in front of you. The taste is vaguely reminiscent of aniseed but mainly of alcohol and the effect is immediate. If getting drunk is your aim, then I wouldn't say you've gone far wrong.
Frunko Schultz Absinth - For a slightly different experience you can try Frunko Schultz, which is served along with 4 other brands at the Propaganda bar in Nové Mesto. The aniseed is more exaggerated and the alcohol content lower at 60%, making it a slightly more palatable drink.
Note: Look carefully at the ingredients on cocktail menus here in Prague. Many American drinks, including the B52, have been re-engineered to include a shot of absinth. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Becherovka was created around the same time as absinth and also as a health tonic, but this time by a pharmacist from Karlový Vary named Josef Becher. The herb-based tonic was called the "English Bitter" and was sold as a remedy for stomach ailments, much like every other famous alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink. Becher soon started selling his "drops" in half-liter bottles and the "blend of fifty herbs and spices" became an immediate marketing success when the Austrian emperor took a fancy to it and the court in Vienna began ordering 50 liters of Becherovka monthly. Competing alcoholics boosted the sales and it soon became the Czech Republic's most successful and individually recognizable spirit. The taste is a little like Jagermeister but with a much more cinnamon-based flavor, more delicate and less sweet. Even though the drink is as strong as most vodka at 38% alcohol, Becherovka is a sipping drink and should not be downed, but instead taken in a double shot with your beer and savored, though the aftertaste may be a little too strong for some. On a side note, Becherovka is also reputed to have aphrodisiac qualities, though you would be hard pressed to find a traditional spirit anywhere in Europe that isn't. Whatever other qualities it may have, most agree that it is the best spirit the Czech republic has to offer, in terms of taste at least. Recently bartenders have been preparing a drink called a 'beton', which comprises a shot of Becherovka with tonic and lemon, for those who like their drinks long. The success of the first Becherovka cocktail has led the company to publicize a whole range including the popular Red Moon, which combines the spirit with blackcurrant juice. Radost FX has several becherovka based cocktails on its menu.
Slivovice is "a gift from God, and must be
treated with respect." So say the Moravians, who as a national pastime
create this "brandy" from plums left in wooden casks from September
until spring. When the fermentation is complete, the mixture is distilled
to 100% proof, then diluted down to a more reasonable 50%. Any Moravian
friends will most likely have a whole clan of relatives producing this
local moonshine in the hills and distributing it in plastic water bottles.
EU regulations about theadding of alcohol to a drink during the distillation
process mean that Slivovice is not really exportable, so if you want to
sample it you have to come to the Czech Republic. Exponents will claim
the concoction will clear a sore throat, ease constipation, cure hangovers
and even dissolve fat after a heavy meal. Critics, mainly foreigners like
myself, will criticize the taste and the smell, which may be a little
harsh to the unaccustomed. An acquired taste, maybe?
The Lionello Stock company in Bo˛kov has been producing Fernet since 1927, originally, yes, as a 'stomach remedy'. It now sells nearly 30 million bottles annually, and is a sure thing if you like other bitter drinks like Campari. Since the fall of communism the company has extended their range by launching citrus and orange flavors, which mask the bitter taste with a sweet and sour flavor.
The Stock company also produce a new low alcohol (16%) apple liquor called "Jablko Bokov." The taste is a little artificial, but the price is so low most don't seem to mind. Vien (cherry) flavor is now also available.
The other drink you may see around is called tuzemský or tuzemák ("The Domestic") but was called 'domestic rum' until EU directives came into force at the beginning of 2003. The drink is made from potato alcohol and flavored with the same stuff you find in rum raisin ice cream. Don't be put off though - while artificial tasting and a little unusual, the finished product tastes better than some of the very low-grade 'real' rum you might find in the city. Drink with coke and lemon to make a "ikov Libre."
On the Web:
The World of Absinth