If you were to have visited fashionable bars in Prague 20 years ago, you may have found an abundance of Czech beer as well as Czech wine. At some hotel bars, you may have gotten a menu listing a handful of very basic cocktails. Today, Prague is a bonafide home to world-class cocktail bars and bartenders, recognized by New Orleans–based competition Tales of the Cocktail, cocktail-centric sites like Worldsbestbars.com and respected newspapers like The Telegraph in the U.K. and
The New York Times.
This “overnight” revolution, however, has been a few years in the making. Several local bartenders point to 2010 as the approximate start date for their cocktail revolution, yet Bugsy’s started laying the groundwork in 1995. Customers can even follow its evolution through a series of framed photos hanging near the front door. While Bugsy’s ambiance maintains a 1930s Art Deco feel (save for upgrades of lighting, sound equipment and bar machines), Jan Braniš, Bugsy’s Bar Manager, says it is the crowd and the efforts of the bartenders combined that keep it on the cutting edge.
“Mixology has made such amazing progress that every single week, there's a new trend coming up in one of our bars, to the point where we’ve been described as a second London,” Braniš says as he adeptly prepares the Bugsy’s Rose signature cocktail. “What makes or breaks a bar in Prague, besides the quality of the drinks, is the quality of our people and the atmosphere. We believe that excellent service and beautifully crafted, original drinks should be the rule and not just the exception. Sometimes, foreigners come because of TripAdvisor, others because of various cocktail blogs. We also find locals who frequent this bar will encourage visitors they may encounter to come here. We also, of course, have in our favor the fact that we were Prague's first cocktail bar.”
Tretter’s New York Bar, listed on the World’s Best Bars web site with Bugsy’s, does its part to up Prague’s game as a cocktail town. Named for globally renowned master bartender Michael Tretter, it offers as many as 200 cocktails in a given season, blending over a 100 classics on call with 50 originals determined by what’s in season. Though the bar has an international feel, it has answered the call from its local supporters by offering bartending classes.
Black Angel’s, opened in 2011, is noted for transforming Sazerac, Tiki drinks and other familiar things into the best cocktails you’ve not yet tried. Not surprisingly, lots of things at Black Angel’s are closely guarded secrets, and photography in this wonderfully photogenic bar is strictly forbidden. As its General Manager, Pavel Šíma, takes us behind the scenes (including an innovative prep kitchen that blurs the lines between craft cocktails and volume production), imaginative theme spaces, and even a UNESCO-designated well from the Middle Ages (doubling as a table, with its plexiglass topper), he points out one of the bar’s goals is to turn the notion of exclusivity on its head.
“When we first opened, the local customers played it safe and ordered familiar things like Mojitos and Cuba Libres,” recalls Šíma. “Immediately, we were determined to keep those kinds of drinks off the menu. Instead, we retooled and decided to start with forgotten classics such as the Sazerac and Old Fashioned and other things our local customers were not drinking. From there, we integrated in some Czech spirits and local ingredients to put a new spin on these to create something new for the locals and the visitors.”
Another part of Black Angel’s allure is that they don’t have customers, but hundreds of close friends.
“We don't have waiters--only bartenders--and we circulate them so at some times, they are behind the bar and the other times they are taking orders and getting to know the customers,” continues Šíma. “We don't have VIP customers. Every single person is a VIP who deserves the best. Whether you have 200 crowns or 2000, we are going to make sure you know your money and presence is good here. This attitude results in people coming for one hour for one drink and instead ordering several drinks and staying until closing.”
Cloud 9 Sky Bar & Lounge, at the top of the Hilton Prague, melds together the posh “sky bar concept” from the U.S. and Asian capitals with a neighborhood-friendly attitude. As a result, its customer base is Prague’s young-and-fabulous trendsetters mixing with foreign visitors. Ladislav Gabor, who was finishing his stint as a principal bartender at Cloud 9 and is starting a new job at top-rated restaurant The Alcron, its best-selling cocktails reflect the Czech Republic’s earlier influences on spirits and cocktail trends internationally.
"We are especially proud of ‘Made in U.S.A.’ because it serves as a metaphor for how R. Jelinek’s Slivovitz went into the international scene in 1934, when Rudolph Jelinek made the first import shipment of the Kosher line into the USA,” says Ladislav Gabor, who was finishing his stint as a principal bartender at Cloud 9 and preparing for a new job at top-rated restaurant The Alcron, “By mixing the new R. Jelinek 5-Year-old Bohemian Honey with cranberry, vermouth and a dried plum garnish, this drink is the perfect way to introduce young customers to plum brandy, in a refreshing, modern way.”
Rekindling Old Spirits
Plum brandy, or slivovitz, has been around for generations, and since 1934, had been a part of many Jewish-American households. Some people not familiar with R. Jelinek’s spirits may write them off as an older person’s drink. However, the history and the spirits’ versatility make them ripe—like the plums—for rediscovery. R. Jelinek spirits were in peril of disappearing internationally when Nazis seized the Jelinek family’s assets in World War II. The distillery later went under state control in 1948, though some distribution channels to the U.S. and elsewhere were maintained. In 1994, soon after the Czech Republic’s political fortunes changed, the company returned to private ownership. Andre Lenard, the founding family’s surviving grand-nephew, became a member of the revitalized company’s advisory board.
A distillery in Visovice, Czech Republic.
Achim Šipl, who organized the tour of Prague’s top bars, balances the roles of spirits brand ambassador (most notably R. Jelinek, a producer of Slivovitz, or plum and fruit brandies), bar menu consultant and international bartending competitor, credits the explosion of the Prague cocktail scene, in part, to influences of the six million foreign visitors who visit annually. He observes those travelers from all over the world push bartenders in their creativity and ambition in bringing favorite drinks to life. However, he also credits his colleagues for their showmanship and willingness to put a distinctively Czech spin on things customers may consider American, British or even Asian.
On this side of the Atlantic, Daughter company R. Jelinek U.S.A. has brought back slivovitz slowly but surely into the bartender’s vocabulary, and thanks to demand among creative bartenders in Prague as well as in the 30 U.S. states where the spirits are now available, has expanded to include different expressions of the slivovitz, Poire William liqueur, the new Bohemia Honey and bar staple Fernet. Šipl notes bartenders around Prague have updated the Manhattan as the Moravian Cock (Rooster) with the slivovitz in place of whiskey and the Old Fashioned with the Poire William and other fruit slivovitzes.
A trip to the distillery (www.rjelinek.us) in Vizovice (a few hours drive or train ride from Prague) is both a foray into history and good taste, especially for those bringing something that’s both old and very much of the moment into their beverage programs.
Black Angel’s Sazerac
by Pavel Šíma, Black Angel’s Bar, Prague
- 1¾ oz. Cognac or slivovitz
2 teaspoons Monin Gomme Syrup
- 2 dashes Peychaud bitters
- 1 piece Žufánek St. Antoine Absinthe ice cube
In an Old-Fashioned glass, mix small ice cubes, cognac, bitters and syrup. Stir well and strain into a second, chilled, Old-Fashioned glass over the ice cube. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
by Jan Braniš, Bugsy’s Bar, Prague
2nd place in world final Havana Club Grand Prix 1998
- 1¾ oz. aged rum
- ¾ oz. Amaretto di Saronno
- ¾ oz. Rose’s lime cordial
Combine ingredients in a shaker. Strain into a v-shaped cocktail glass. Garnish with
cinnamon stick and long lime peel
by Jan Braniš, Bugsy’s Bar, Prague
- 1¼ oz. vodka of choice
- ¾ oz. fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz. Rose’s Lime cordial
- ½ oz. rose extract
- 1¾ oz. natural spring water
Combine ingredients in a shaker and shake. Pour into an Old Fashioned glass over ice cubes. Garnish with rose petals and serve.
Enjoy the Moment
Combine ingredients except cava in a shaker and shake. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with
rhubarb, sugar pearls, roses and bear grass
R. Jelinek Slivovice 45% 3 Year Old
MONIN Pêche Blanche syrup
MONIN Amaretto syrup
fresh rhubarb juice
Fee Brothers Plum Bitters
Freixenet Gordon Negro cava