It's just about lunchtime when Aleš Půta prepares his first drink of the day: a glass of St. Antoine, one of the most respected absinthes distilled in the Czech Republic. We're sitting upstairs at Hemingway Bar, the cocktail lounge Půta opened in 2009, now the unofficial home of distilled absinthe in Prague. It's a man's man's kind of place, even with the midday sun streaming in through the windows: the bar is a dark, glossy wood; the banquette seating is upholstered in leather.
"I didn't need a drink at one in the afternoon," I remark to Půta as he closes the tap of ice water dripping into my St. Antoine and creating a sea-foam "louche" in the bottom of the glass.
Půta assures me: "It's for daily drinking."
Půta takes his drink seriously, and in a city where absinthe has a contentious reputation, he is perhaps the spirit's greatest evangelist. At present, nearly a dozen Czech-made absinthes appear on Hemingway's menu, as well as twice as many more from France and Switzerland and a signature absinthe cocktail. Yet just across the cobblestone street, tourist shops are turning a profit off of artificially coloured and flavoured alcohols, also marketed as absinthe. Those dyed-green (and blue and red and yellow) "Czech-style absinthes" are macerated rather than distilled, making them essentially wormwood bitters. They're also often spiked with peppermint or cannabis flavouring. Půta tells me that on a rare occasion a tourist will enter the bar in search of an emerald-coloured absinthe, and Půta and his team seize the opportunity to win a convert. "We try to teach them," he said charitably. (He speaks less charitably about the dyed alcohol itself.)
Upscale cocktail bars like Hemingway have multiplied exponentially over the past decade, and within the nascent cocktail culture of this serious beer town, both products are finding a foothold. Several brands of Czech spirits have begun to make small-batch "authentic" absinthes, including the prolific Žufánek distillery and Hill's, the brand credited with introducing macerated absinthe into the Czechoslovak market in 1992. Hemingway leads the pack in making these spirits available to a growing audience of spirits-drinkers in Prague, but younger establishments are also doing their part to drum up interest, including Black Angel's Bar, Public Interest, and Hemingway's little sister Cash Only Bar, all of which have opened since 2010.
Půta's generation is leading the charge to bring fine cocktails and spirits to the Czech capital. "Maybe in a classic American family, the grandfather drinks a very nice bourbon, and Old Fashioneds, and Manhattans. The father will drink something cooler because he travels a lot to Caribbean parts, so he drinks Mai Tais and daiquiris," he mused. "In the Czech Republic, my father drank only beer and Becherovka; my grandfather, only beer and Becherovka." Půta and his contemporaries trod new territory, and many bartenders in well-known cocktail bars around the world are natives of the former Czechoslovakia—so many, in fact, that they've become known as the "Czechoslovak mafia." Půta cites Erik Lorincz of the American Bar, Alex Kratena of Artesian, Marian Beke of Gibson, and Zdenek Kastanek of 28 Hong Kong Street: "All these guys are Czech or Slovak. So they give us lots of power, lots of information—the trendy and…important things for us."
But in a city thronged with stag partiers—where the world's best pilsner still costs less than its bottled water—the cheap thrill of a Listerine-coloured absinthe is a pretty winning proposition. To boot, many macerated-absinthe drinkers are seduced by its pyrotechnics: Lit with a match, the bitter alcohol becomes sweeter when its sugars caramelise. "It's something really stupid because it's very dangerous and [does] nothing good. But it works," Půta said about the ritual.
I got a glimpse of the pyrotechnic show at Absintherie, a bar-cum-absinthe museum with two locations in the Czech capital. If Hemingway is Prague absinthe drinkers' Shangri-La, Absintherie is at least its Epcot Center—home to a comprehensive, if perhaps caricatured, cross-section of absinthe culture. According to manager Jiří Kořínek, Absintherie boasts 100 different varieties of absinthe, including many of the varieties available at Hemingway Bar. He and his colleagues know their stuff, a fact even Půta acknowledges: "They absolutely understand what they do," he said.
Absintherie's biggest sellers, however, are the macerated alcohols, with all the bells and whistles and fire. "If you say to someone, 'I'm selling absinthe,' [they reply,] 'Oh, absinthe, I was drunk once with absinthe and it was horrible,'" Kořínek said. "I was like, yeah, but you know, that wasn't absinthe, that was crap." He admits, however, that that "crap" is hugely popular, which is why it gets top billing on the Absintherie menu. Absintherie plays on an outsider's understanding of the Czech capital, catering to a crowd that knows only as much about the city of Prague as can be gleaned from three pages of a guidebook. "You must [go] to see Charles Bridge, castle, and you must...try absinthe," Kořínek said. "For me, it's reklama"—advertising—"for nothing."
Kořínek is a blond-haired, bright-eyed man whose enthusiasm is so vast that it cannot be contained in a single anecdote at a time. He's a completist—or to put it less delicately, an obsessive—and his interest in absinthe runs the gamut from the Technicolor bitters to the aged, small-batch distillates (a couple of which he has worked with Žufánek to produce specifically for Absintherie). Incidentally, Kořínek tells me, his latest project is a restaurant called Chilli Point. "Right now we do everything from the chili: marmalade, chocolate, sauces, you know, alcohol with chilli." As we begin to part ways, he tells me with great zeal how the human palate acclimates itself to increasing levels of heat and how extremely spicy food can be lethal. He is evidently allured by superlatives.
Many of the same items peddled at Chilli Point have their equivalents at Absintherie. Absinthe chocolate, absinthe beer, and absinthe ice cream are standbys; an absinthe lollipop is in the works; absinthe jam (in grapefruit and plum varieties) makes a fine souvenir. Most visitors to Absintherie purchase macerated alcohol by the shot. But Kořínek admires the bartenders behind Prague's budding cocktail scene and has devised a full menu of his own mixed drinks. There are house spins on classic cocktails and shooters (Absinthe Mule, Absinthe Alexander) and a series of signature drinks. One features blueberry and sage; another, rhubarb and wasabi.
On the afternoon I visited Absintherie's Jílská Street location, a group of college-aged men at the bar quietly watched a pretty bartender mix up a pair of Absinthe Berry cocktails. I worked my way through the better part of an absinthe-pistachio ice cream cone to the tunes of "Moon River" and "You Send Me" (and an old recording of "White Christmas"—on a sticky July day, the anachronism was welcome). Every once in awhile, Kořínek said, he comes into Absintherie and finds that one of the portraits of famous absinthe drinkers has been pilfered from the wall. He gave an amicable shrug: "OK, fair enough." The lights are low; the place is clean and attractive. Despite its frat-boy appeal, it's a pretty classy joint. And as Prague's bar scene edges out of its infancy and into adulthood, who could expect anything less?