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Brody Studios

At Brody Studios in Budapest, Alchemist Nights are routinely held to introduce guests to new concoctions that aptly speak to Europe’s ascending cocktail culture.

A European Perspective

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On a sabbatical across the Atlantic, FSR’s spirits editor shares her thoughts on what might be coming to America.

By Alia Akkam December 2015 Spirits

Beer might just be more ubiquitous than water in Prague. When I visited the city earlier this year, while I was eager to enjoy a few fresh pints alongside my plates of schnitzel devoured in well-worn pubs, the spirits geek in me was a tad more enthusiastic to scope out the burgeoning cocktail scene. What would a city fueled on Pilsner dream up in the way of cocktails? While Europe is traditionally synonymous with quality brews and wine, whether it be in the form of those frothy Oktoberfest steins in Munich or a glass of crisp Soave from the Veneto, as of late the continent is acquiring quite the reputation for stellar libations. Once the cocktail renaissance unfolded in the States, Europe wasn’t far behind. Now, it’s in the spotlight.

This is why, one blustery spring evening in Prague, I found myself savoring a chocolate Negroni with cocoa bean–infused Campari at the only free seat—unpleasantly sandwiched between chain smokers—in the dark, literary-inspired Hemingway Bar, watching my fellow guests order one of the numerous absinthes in stock. Prior to that, I drank a jasmine and apricot daiquiri at the fancy Champagne bar L’Fleur, which looked as if it had just been plucked from the streets of Paris, and I ended the (long boozy) evening with the Fred Collins Fizz at Black Angel, an ambient respite squirreled away at the bottom of an unassuming hotel.

Fabled European cocktail bars have long held my interest for their alluring mix of history and romance. Consider Harry’s Bar, in Venice. Although this circa-1930s Art Deco marvel from the Cipriani family is now packed with selfie-stick-toting tourists looking to unwind post-gondola ride, a magical aura remains attached to sipping on one of the refreshing Bellinis that the old-fashioned bar is known for. Likewise, when walking into Boadas, a dim, cozy 1939 beauty in Barcelona, it’s hard not to feel as if the bow-tied gent sliding over that Tom Collins is none other than pioneering proprietor Miguel Boadas. Erik Lorincz, head bartender of the American Bar at the Savoy—the most famous of London hotel dens—ensures the vibe suits today’s contemporary, curious drinkers, but once ushered inside, guests still fall for the Art Deco backdrop and historic sheen. That the Hanky Panky was introduced by a female bartender who started working here in 1903 makes the past all the more legendary.

But this year, when I decided to fulfill a belated childhood dream of living in Europe for a spell—I’m currently writing this in Budapest, my home for the past few months—it was the modern-day European cocktail culture, similar to the one thriving in the States, that began to fascinate me even more. After all, I had been spoiled in New York City, tasting myriad concoctions a week. I wanted to ensure I would not go through egg white and from-scratch bitters withdrawal. Luckily I have not.

Cocktail enthusiasts know that London flaunts one of the most impressive drink scenes on the globe—whether it’s a classic martini prepared tableside by the charming Alessandro Palazzi at the Dukes Bar, the whimsical creations Alex Kratena churns out at Artesian at the Langham, or one of the forward-thinking bottled elixirs at Shoreditch hotspot White Lion. The drinks unfolding in London are on par with those in the U.S.: brazen and imaginative, and perhaps most importantly, successfully executed.

No lover of cocktails heads to Paris without a stop at Candelaria, the bar hidden behind a taqueria from Adam and Carina Tsou and Josh Fontaine. Here, one can drink the mighty fine Sycamore, which brings together tequila, Pineau des Charentes, amontillado sherry, and Chartreuse, or the Pisco Disco, with Aperol, Galliano, orgeat, and Angostura bitters. Both sherry and Pisco have risen in popularity in the States, and it’s interesting to observe their appeal across the pond as well. This trifecta’s hip empire also includes the nearby Le Mary Celeste and Glass, both of which naturally boast solid cocktail programs to boot.

While exploring the bars of Vienna, I took note of an interesting trend: The best bars in the city had been around for years, quietly making sublime classics well before cocktail fanaticism took root. For example, Halbestadt, the lair from husband-and-wife team Erich Wassicek and Konny Wunder, has been around for 16 years, devoted to the tried-and-true. You won’t find a better Manhattan in the city. While they didn’t brag about it, loyalists knew, and now that good cocktails are permeating Vienna, so do evening revelers. A few blocks away, Kan Zuo has been operating the playful Sign Lounge for almost a decade, featuring a menu peppered with nods to bar greats like Jerry Thomas, alongside clever gin and tonics served in fishbowl-like glasses swirling with snapping fish. It fits the States’ rising trend of a comfortable, thoughtful neighborhood bar.

In Budapest, I was a tad fearful of the cocktail scene at first. I noticed most bar-goers opted for a simple pint of Soproni, kept faithful to one of the country’s spectacular wines, or relished a shot of bracing pálinka. After a little investigating, I stumbled upon Boutiqbar, a red-hued, decidedly New York bar that makes a drink called the Gypsy Water. Immediately, I became besotted with this vegetal cachaça-basil-pepper concoction, and all skepticism was eradicated. I now had a local watering hole, a fashionable one that made drinks as inspired as the ones I was accustomed to. But it turns out that limiting my experience to repeat visits there meant missing out on so much more creativity. For instance, at the upscale, Asian-inspired restaurant Baraka, I’ve sampled the ideal remedy for homesickness: the popcorn-laced bourbon cocktail dubbed the American Dream. At Brody Studios, the private members’ club I joined in the hopes of making friends with some artsy expats, I introduced myself to the head bartender, Dez O’Connell, when I saw him whipping up a pristine daiquiri. His Old Fashioneds are just as satisfying. At Brody Studios, he regularly leads enlightening Alchemists Nights, which introduce imbibers to such treats as melon cocktails as well as demystify the art of tiki preparations and quirkily reimagine the city’s stunning bridges in drink form. He is also chock full of recommendations. When I asked where else I should be forking over money for cocktails, he advised me to sample the funky selections at Bar Pharma. Why, yes, the Pink Monkey, with gin, grapefruit, hibiscus, sugar, egg white, cream, and soda is something I just might encounter at the old-timey Ice Cream Bar, in San Francisco.

Cocktail culture is indeed ascending in Europe, and, if we needed any further proof, enter the prestigious Bar Convent Berlin: the bar and beverage trade show, which takes place every October. Let’s not forget the Boutique Bar Show in London, or the Athens Bar Show. Just like Tales of the Cocktail meshes bar folks from all over the world, these events are gaining traction and forging strong, impactful communities here as well.

Whether it’s one of the ambitious gin and tonics crafted in Barcelona, a simple Aperol Spritz savored on a sultry evening in Rome, or a Parisian hotspot adventurously weaving rhubarb syrup into a libation, it’s a compelling time to order something beyond a beer or glass of wine in Europe. Glad I will be here to watch it all develop into something even more riveting.