Prague 2011 - Drink

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Blame my hard liquor research on Scotland: in 2002, I went there and had good whisky for the first time. Brought some home, and I've been drinking whisky ever since. It's also meant that whereever I go, I try the local liquors.

Links are to Wikipedia.

Czechs drink more beer per person than any other country in the world. Beer is also cheaper than water if you're buying it rather than getting it out of a tap. Most of their beer is hoppy Pilsners, which don't really appeal to me. Their dark beers tend to have a lighter flavour and more hops than our dark beers as well, but I did enjoy some of them. Of those I tried, Kozel dark was probably my favourite.

At one of the pubs I was at, Lokal, a guy at a nearby table went through three pints of beer that were delivered to him as all head. They had perhaps a centimeter of liquid on the bottom. I wondered if that was the "milk" that was listed under Beer in the English menu.

But my biggest interest was the hard liquor. Let's start with Slivovice, probably their best known drink. It tends to be transliterated over here to "Slivovitz" as the "c" in Czech has a "ts" sound. It's essentially brandy made from plums, and it generally has all the colour of tap water. It's not very sweet, but does have a taste of plums to it. If the utter lack of colour doesn't worry you, a shot at most bars in Prague costs about $3, and is nearly twice the size of a standard shot it Canada. Very dangerous.

Hruškovice is closely related to Slivovice, the main difference being that this is made with pears instead of plums. As you might guess, there are several other variations on that theme, although the only one I can remember at the moment is apricots (Meruňkovice). Both had some of the taste of the fruit in question, but they're less popular, and the pear version was extremely rough around the edges. I could see that it could be as good if well made, but the one I had wasn't. Which brings us to brands: the commonest behind bars (and thus probably cheapest) is Jelinek. The apricot version I had was by Žufánek, and if I were buying I would prefer that.

Becherovka is a herbal bitters. Bitters are popular in Germany (and undoubtedly other places, but I tried them there), so this is in the same family with the Kuemmerling I had in Berlin. If you aren't familiar with these, think of Jägermeister - but take out some of the sugar, as Jäger is sickly sweet. Becherovka is 38% ABV, and tasted very strongly of cloves. It's also slightly medicinal. I was kind of liking the idea of a clove liquor, even with a slight lead-in of soap, but the aftertaste on this one absolutely sank it: bitter and really unpleasant.

Next up, Fernet Stock. Another herbal bitters, in the same territory with Becharovka. Also brown in colour. Very medicinal flavour, slightly bitter, a little sweet, tastes a lot like the smell of rubbing alcohol. And a touch of cough syrup.

Absinthe is very much in fashion in the Czech Republic - and, as it was banned in many places for a long time and is still not readily available in Canada, I took the opportunity to try it. The restaurant I was at at the time had two listings for "Absente" and "Absinth." I asked my waiter what the difference was, and he said "That one [Absinth] is the Czech one. I don't recommend that. The other is French." So I paid the higher price for the French version, but before he brought it he remembered another fact for me: the French version is "only" 55% ABV. Yes - the Czech version is around 70%. What I got was another of these enormous Czech shots (no burning sugar here) of pale green liquid. Thick, syrupy, and sweet: honestly, to me it tasted almost exactly like Ouzo: the smell and taste were of licorice.

Stara Myslivecka is the closest local relative to brandy, and has a more brandy-like colour to it. Given the previous local stuff I'd been drinking, I was surprised at how smooth it was. In fact it was quite drinkable, but I wouldn't know the difference from any bar brandy.

Last up was Borovička ("borrow-vich-ka"). Clear like water, slightly syrupy mouth-feel, slightly sweet. Hints of gin (it's made from juniper berries, as is gin), a bit of pine, a hint of pepper. Didn't like it much.

For all that effort I didn't find anything that I needed to take home with me: if I'm there again I would happily drink Žufánek Slivovice, but it wasn't so good that carting a bottle home seemed like a necessity.


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