A toast to the mysterious, fiery nectar known as absinthe (Photo: Thinkstock)
“No, don’t drink,” the bartender says, shaking his head after I ask him if he enjoys imbibing the infamous liquor. “Got me in much trouble. Trouble with police,” he clarifies, setting two large glasses of his least favorite cocktail on the table. “Drank too much, bring very bad trouble for me."
The bartender at Café-Bar Propaganda in Prague’s New Town neighborhood may have had his troubles with absinthe, but the booze has been a boon to the Czech Republic. Vilified and outlawed for much of the 20th century, absinthe has undergone a modern revival in Europe, where Prague has quickly distinguished itself as the continent’s new absinthe capital.
Prague has become an absinthe capital. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Today, the city’s cobblestone streets are lined with shops, bars, and restaurants peddling the Green Fairy, as the drink is lovingly nicknamed, offering curious tourists and refined connoisseurs alike a chance to consume the near-mythic spirit.
Absintherie, a flashy absinthe-themed bar just a few blocks from Prague’s Old City quarter, straddles the line between those two target audiences. Out front, a five-foot-tall model of a green absinthe ice cream cone lures in the random passerby. Despite the obvious gimmick, the place is serious about absinthe.
First stop on the absinthe tour: Absintherie (Photo: Andy Hay/Flickr)
My friend Julia and I take two open seats outside and explain our newcomer status to the waitress. Our waitress quickly informs us that there are two ways of drinking absinthe: macerated (which basically means straight up) and distilled (cut heavily with water). I opt for macerated and Julia chooses distilled.
Inside, the show begins. With a lone sugar cube teetering above the gold liquid, my drink is set alight, the waitress coaxing the glass to induce as many flames as possible. Simultaneously, Julia’s drink comes alive, a large industrial-looking machine pouring out a thick fog.
The waitress bring us our cocktails. Julia’s is cloudy white; mine is almost dark neon yellow. Julia asks about the fog employed to concoct her drink: “Does it put the sugar in?”
The first drinks of the evening. There will be more. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
"No, that’s just a show,” the waitress admits quickly and a little sheepishly. “Just a bit of dry ice.“
Show or not, the drinks are strong. My Absinthe 35 clocks in at 70 percent alcohol; Julia’s distilled La Grenouille is 65 percent. The drinking, as a result, is slow going.
"Take your time,” the waitress urges, bringing us water and some salty snacks to remove the rubbing-alcohol taste from our mouths.
The bitter black licorice and mint flavors soon overpower our taste buds. “I don’t think I can finish mine,” Julia says, cringing after her most recent sip. “Yes, you can. I’ll help,” I say, pretending to be saintly and taking a big gulp from her glass.
WATCH: How to Drink Absinthe
The cocktails finally finished, our time at Absintherie comes to a close. Overall, it seems like a good place to have started. The staff is friendly and they know their stuff, but the décor is a little off-putting, more amusement park than serious bar.
We head to our next destination, a pub near the Vltava River named after one of the world’s most beloved absinthe fanboys — Big Papa himself, Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway Bar is everything Absintherie isn’t. No absinthe-themed color scheme, no giant ice cream cone — just a dark, intimate bar where absinthe is one of the many cocktails in the Bible-sized menu.
Feeling our amateurishness fade slightly after our initial absinthe encounter — or perhaps eased because of it — we confidently order two new drinks, a sweet Mead Base absinthe and Bairnsfather Reality absinthe.
The smartly dressed waiter brings us two small crystal tumblers accompanied by an art nouveau-style fountain filled with chilled water. He balances a silver tray atop each glass, adds two sugar cubes, and turns the doll-sized spigot until water begins to drip onto the sugar. This is definitely how Hemingway drank absinthe, I tell myself. No smoke machines, no Hollywood-inspired fireworks.
The classier vibe at Hemingway Bar (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Julia and I take turns sipping each other’s drinks. The Mead Base absinthe is not nearly as sugary as advertised, and I’m beginning to think that nothing will make this, at 136 proof, or any other absinthe sweet enough to pass as palatable. The Bairnsfather is equally strong, and I learn that with a thujone content of 35 mg/L, the maximum allowed by law, it is one of the more powerful absinthes available. Thujone — a word that sounds more in place in a Marvel comic book — is basically the chemical that makes absinthe absinthe.
Our time at Hemingway Bar feels sophisticated and oddly intellectual, as if sitting around a dark room while sipping ethanol is all it takes to become a part-time poet.
With its large, brightly lit storefront, Absinthe Time appears to be almost completely empty. A lone couple sits in a corner, employing the Green Fairy’s healing powers to soothe tensions after what seems to be a terse argument.
It’s always absinthe time at Absinthe Time. (Photo: Cyril Doussin/Flickr)
Our waiter counterbalances the couple’s melancholy with a strong smile and a thick, cheerful accent. We look over the menu.
“What’s the Absinthe Coffee?” Julia asks.
“This is new. Very, very bitter,” the waiter says. I imagine a dark cup of black coffee with a shot of absinthe poured in. “It’s very bitter,” the waiter stresses again. “Not sure if we will keep it.”
We order the coffee and an Absinthe Euphoria Original 70%, the names and numbers increasingly losing meaning as the booze continues to work its effect.
This is the “coffee” you’ll get when you order it at Absinthe Time. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Telling the waiter we’re working our way through Prague’s best absinthe bars, we’re surprised when our two drinks are served up alongside four additional cocktails.
A sweet-looking bartender named Valerie has cooked them up for us. “Try them out,” she says. “Tell me which one you like the most.”
Although only one of the four contains absinthe, it’s the best drink I’ve tried so far. A kind of absinthe grasshopper, it has the richness of a smooth milkshake. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the absinthe coffee, which is bitterer than even our waiter could convey. Rather than in a coffee cup, it’s served in a slim shot glass. It’s like a black hole condensed into a single swallow. It tastes a hundred times heavier than it actually is.
Ending our night at Café-Bar Propaganda, we’re happy that we don’t have to make any more difficult choices. The two drinks we order are the only two absinthes on the menu: Fruko Schulz Absinth and Absinthe St. Antoine. They’re also the cheapest drinks of the night.
They keep things simple at Café-Bar Propaganda; these are the only two absinthes on the menu. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
The bartender, still fresh from his absinthe-fueled run-in with the law, sits the drinks down courteously but unceremoniously. I examine my glass and give it a strong sniff. I feel like a seasoned veteran, able to detect the subtle herb varieties and distinct Czech distillation process … but I’m only fooling myself. Absinthe’s power has overwhelmed me, and as a wave of cozy Czech chatter wafts past me, it all tastes like firewater, delicious boozy firewater.