Panenka Scarves XIV: The Spirit(s) of Czech

Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.

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Without a doubt, this was one of the more fun Panenka Scarves to research. Along with Drinking Beer Like a Czech this should just about cover Czech drink habits and, if I get my act together, a piece on the exceptional food out here is on the horizon.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, I’d like to take a moment or two and present some of the better known spirits in the Czech Republic. The most popular drinks here are all domestically produced and a lot more unique when compared to some of the other places I’ve lived. Sure, you can go out and have a whisky or a vodka, but these options just aren’t as common.

A second reason is that it gives me an excuse to head down to the pub in the name of journalism. And it really doesn’t get more enjoyable than that.

A glowing green glass, a pair of herbal bitters, and a rum that can no longer legally be called rum – these are the drinks that are waiting for you in the Czech Republic.

With great pleasure, here are five of the most commonly consumed spirits in the Czech Republic.

Zelená: A big green drinking machine

First on the list is a personal favourite of mine. Zelená is a refreshingly soft compliment to a beer and aesthetically pleasing to boot. Essentially, it’s peppermint schnapps with a better name – zelená, which means green in Czech.

ZelenaNormally one doesn’t consider peppermint schnapps to be a tough guy’s drink. Though in the Czech Republic it’s a favourite of football hooligans, builders, scrappers, and brawlers of all sorts.

Since it’s only 20% ABV, zelená won’t knock you out of your seat the way some stronger stuff does (I’m looking at you slivovice), so it’s good choice to sip alongside a beer or shoot on your way out of the pub. This goes a long way if you put back as many beers as a typical Czech on a Friday night.

Better still, the legacy of the drink was cemented by legendary Czech rockers Tři Sestry in the song Zelaná, which features a chorus that begins: Dám si sedm piv a jednu zelenou (I’ll have seven beers and a shot). The song is not only fantastic, but also adept at teaching foreigners like myself how to politely ask for things in pubs or restaurants.

This drink is perfect for kicking your pub night up a notch, without leading you to pass out in some park by the end of the night.

Becherovka: A true Czech spirit

Becherovka is one of the most recognizable drinks to any foreigners visiting the Czech Republic. Especially true in Prague, tourist shops are filled with bottles of Becherovka ranging in size from mini-bar to small dog (3-litre). Not only that, but nearly every pub or restaurant has Becherovka in house.

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Created in 1807 by Josef Becher – a pharmacist who fathered sixteen children and stumbled upon the recipe while experimenting – Becherovka is an herbal bitters, so it follows suit that it tastes bitter and a bit like medicine. If you’re really good at this sort of thing, you should be able to pick up notes of ginger and cinnamon that give it some sweetness as well.

To this day, the recipe is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the country. It brings to mind the confidentiality surrounding the Colonel’s eleven herbs and spices. Only two people actually know the distilling process and exact proportion of ingredients, including the mysterious medicinal herb extracts that give Becherovka its bitter, but enjoyable, taste.

It is meant to be imbibed cold and there’s no need to shoot it, sipping is fine and, personally, I prefer it that way. Perhaps the most common cocktail is called a Beton, which is Becherovka mixed with tonic water. Beton also translates into concrete, alluding to how solid a drink it really is.

You can’t come to the Czech Republic without having a Becherovka. Popular as both an apéritif and digestif, there really is no excuse to leave here without trying it at least once.

Rum: Well … sort of…

The beverage formally known as Czech Rum now goes by the handle Tuzemák, itself a play on the word tuzemský, which means “domestic“. The drink literally means “home“ and is as Czech a spirit as they come.

In order to abide by EU law, the Czech Republic was forbidden to continue labeling their rum as rum, since it isn’t distilled from sugar cane. Instead, the Czech version comes from potato or sugar beets.Tuzemsky

While that may sound a little odd at first glance, it’s actually quite tasty. With notes of vanilla, it’s softer and a bit sweeter than traditional rums and more golden in colour. This distinctive taste gives new life to traditional cocktails like rum and coke, and ads a little something different and unexpected to your drink. Best of all, as it’s locally distilled, it’s always an inexpensive option that won’t leave you light in the wallet. Good for celebrating a win by your favourite football or hockey club.

Slivovice: This would be a stupid death

Common throughout most of Central and Eastern Europe, slivovice is certainly a Slavic treat that will knock you off your seat. It’s a plum brandy – often homemade, often very strong – colourless, and sometimes smells like nail polish remover. It tastes like gasoline and boy will it ever sneak up on you fast. It’s as potent as it is popular, and this is especially true with the older generations.

Slivovice is an all-purpose drink. It can be used for pleasure on a Friday night … or an afternoon in the countryside. Alternatively, as a disinfectant, cold remedy, or painkiller. In a pinch, it can be used to start a fire and I’m fairly certain you could power a small car with it, should the need ever arise. Essentially, you can plug it into any situation and it’ll deliver adequately. Consider it the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of European alcohol.

Most popular in the Moravian region of the Czech Republic, but enjoyed throughout the country, one must be very careful with slivovice, or it will end up the nail in your coffin. While it is worthwhile to try one, two will quickly start you down the path towards a quantum leap wherein you wake up a day later, in a different part of town, wearing the visage of a hungover hobo with an empty wallet and breath like kebab.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing homemade slivovice, below is a great interpretation:

Fernet Stock: Buy stock in Stock

Let it never be said that the Czech Republic doesn’t love its herbal bitters. Fernet Stock is perhaps the least sexy of these Czech spirits, though it’s popularity has endured since it was first produced by an Italian businessman by the name of Lionello Stock in 1927.

Although it is more noticeably consumed by an older crowd, I am of the opinion that Fernet Stock is one of the more underrated spirits in the Czech Republic. This Slavic cousin of Fernet Branca – the drink recently made popular by Alfred Pennyworth in Dark Knight Rises – may take some getting used to, but it’s a wonderful digestif.

Like Becherovka, the recipe is secretly guarded and relies on fourteen herbs from around the world to give Fernet Stock a unique taste – a medley of different flavors ranging from syrupy menthol to cherries. There is only a hint of sweetness and the drink will finish by drying your mouth out in a flash.

If you do not enjoy a bitter taste, Fernet Stock is probably not for you. However, there is an alternative that lets you keep it in the family.

Fernet Stock Citron and Fernet Stock

Fernet Stock Citrus (L) and Fernet Stock (R)

In 1997, Fernet Citrus was introduced, which added a citrus twist to the classic drink, and combined it with a lower alcohol content (Fernet Stock is 40% ABV, while Fernet Citrus is merely 30%). Since it is sweeter, lighter, and a little easier to handle, it has quickly become an incredibly popular drink with crowds of all ages, sexes, and backgrounds. Mixed with tonic, Fernet Citrus is divine.

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