Jazzing on Absinthe

Prague is a lovely city with a lot to offer by way of castles, quaint boat rides and architectural marvels. But it’s also one of the best places to be in if you are a jazz buff, a beer guzzler or one who ventures into exotic lounge bars to sip large portions of exotic liquor once the sun has set. Sanjoy Narayan went there, did that and survived to tell the tale.

Sanjoy Narayan | Print Edition: June 1, 2008

I’m always suspicious of strange rituals related to drinking—like shoving a segment of lemon into the neck of a beer bottle. Why would you do such a thing unless what you are drinking actually tastes like crap or you’re just brainlessly adopting some marketing hype? A drink should be good enough not to be adulterated with anything at all. Alright, there are exceptions.

Prague: City for jazz buff
Prague: City for jazz buff
Like a splash of water in a shot of single malt, or a trace of vermouth in your gin for a Martini. But by and large, liquor should be drunk in the form that it comes—no additions; no subtractions. So here I was, sceptically appraising what the bartender at ZanziBar was telling me to do.

This was my second evening in Prague and I’d ventured out to this interestingly named bar where I’d ordered a shot of absinthe, the green-hued potent liquor that found both fame and notoriety in the 19th and early 20th century Europe, notably in France. Absinthe, favoured by poets and artists like Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Vincent van Gogh and Oscar Wilde, was believed to have strong psychoactive and hallucinating properties.

Street musicians doing their act
Street musicians doing their act
So much so that its manufacture was banned in most countries till the late1990s when a revival began, mainly in the European Union. Here I was in beautiful Prague, ordering a shot of absinthe. And the bartender brought out a special reservoir glass and a longish flat spoon with slits cut into it. What he suggested I do was this: lay the spoon across the top of the glass; place a sugar cube on the slits of the spoon and slowly pour the absinthe on the sugar cube, which absorbs the liquor before it drips down into the glass; after pouring around 50 ml of the absinthe, which incidentally was a 70 proof, fiery liquid, he handed me a matchbox and asked me to light the sugar cube; the cube lit up with a bluish flame and the sugar began to get caramelised; he then urged me to drop the sugar into the glass of absinthe, add a bit of water and stir it in with the spoon. I was now ready to take the first sip. I took it.

And then a few more before the aniseed flavoured cloudy, greenish concoction was over. I must report that unlike van Gogh or the other bohemian artists and authors, the shot of absinthe didn’t leave me unhinged or suicidal, but, yes, it’s a strong potion and I’m not sure what effect it would have had on me had I indulged in it immoderately.

A bar waiting to fill up
A bar waiting to fill up
Which I did with the other alcoholic beverage that the Czech Republic is famous for: beer. Czechs have been brewing beer since the 11th century and Pilsner beers owe their origin to Plzen in western Bohemia. Czechs love their beer and with good reason. The endless pints of Pilsners and lagers that I drank tasted great, whether it was the Pilsner Urquells, the Staropramens or the Budvars. I won’t blame you if you think so, but I wasn’t on a drink-fuelled alcoholic jaunt through Prague. The three nights were part of three days spent in a conference.

All that jazz and more at a bar
All that jazz at a bar
And although I did see lovely unsullied examples of Prague’s architecture and had a quick glimpse of the medieval Prague Castle, a cruise on the Vltava River and walks through old and new quarters of the city, my real interactions with the city happened after dark.

Absinthe in its green glory
Absinthe in its green glory
At the U Maleho Glena, a little stone-vaulted bar tucked away in the cellar of an inn, where blues and jazz bands play nightly in what is perhaps the tiniest live venue in the world, I drank beer and snacked on the local favourite— pork and dumplings. At the U Stare Pani jazz club, which, roughly translated, means “At the Old Woman’s” (a euphemism, I guess, for what probably used to be a brothel), I caught an excellent avant-garde jazz band, while sipping (what else?) more beer.

Yet, Prague, laden as it is with hoary history, has a lot more to offer than just the beer, the absinthe and the jazz. For that (or just the beer!), I’d have to make another trip there soon.

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