On the Prowl in Prague for Czech Whisky
All images by Keith Allison.
When you tell someone in Prague you are on the lookout for Czech whiskey, you get a lot of curious looks. On occasion, someone will tell you where can go for a decent selection of Scotch, but they will insist that Czech whisky does not exist. This is no conspiracy or act of malice. In a country that is defined by its beer, and to a lesser extent its Absinthe and cans of weed soda, it’s just assumed that there’s no whisky being made. But there is, and while it has a low profile and many bartenders will be self-deprecating if they do have it, don’t let any of that fool you. Czech whisky is real, and it’s worth trying.
The days of whisky from somewhere other than the US, UK, and Canada being thought of as oddities are gone. Japan, India, Taiwan, Sweden, France, Germany, Tasmania -- the list of countries producing whisky is ever-growing, so it’s no surprise that a country that loves drinking as much as the Czech Republic has been in on the game as well. Finding it, however, can be a chore, even in a big city like Prague. The first I heard of a Czech whisky was from a friend, who found a 23-year-old single malt at the duty-free shop at Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport. Unfortunately, the United States does not trust Czech airport security, so passengers to the US are banned from buying anything larger than 100ml, even in duty-free. So the bottle -- Hammer Head, it was called -- remained frustratingly out of reach.
When I found myself in Prague sometime later, procuring a bottle of Hammer Head was among my top priorities. Or if not a bottle, then at least having a dram. Most bars, however, stock only the barest of basics when it comes to whisky -- your bigger blends, a Macallan here and there, and nothing from the home team. Bars dedicated to whisky are few and far between. And then one day, as I made my way to Wenceslas Square, I sauntered past a large, medieval-looking tower with a banner proclaiming that within its walls was a whisky shop and bar. And I soon further discovered that, within that bar, was the chance to sample not just one, but three Czech whiskies.
Located on the first and second floors of the historic Jindřišská Tower, a bell tower that was constructed in 1472, Whiskeria is an exceptionally comfortable place to sink into an overstuffed chair and enjoy a few drams. After centuries of the usual medieval European history of burning down, being rebuilt, redesigned, then restored, the current incarnation of Jindřišská Tower opened in 2002 and includes a multi-floor restaurant, museum, and of course, Whiskeria and its associated shop. The bar has a whisky selection that would rival any whisky bar in the US or UK. Bruichladdich seems a particular passion of theirs, but they cover the gamut from Scotland to the US, Japan, and continental Europe, with a large selection of oddball independent bottlings.
It was the Czech whisky that I was keenest on. Whiskeria offers three, both at the bar as well as for sale by the bottle in their store: Hammer Head, the crown jewel of the Czech whisky world; Gold Cock; and Printer’s, which was the cheapest and out of stock the day I stopped by. So the order was placed for a dram of 12-year-old Gold Cock and the 23-year-old Hammer Head, with the knowledgeable bartender being self-effacing and asking “are you sure?” To soothe his nerves over my Czech flight, I got a Nikka and a Bruichladdich as well. Didn’t want to stress the poor, kilted lad out!
Turns out the Czech Republic needn’t be so dismissive of its own whisky.
There are a at least two versions of Gold Cock: a young, three-year-old blend nicknamed "Red Feathers," and the 12-year-old single malt dubbed "Green Feathers." Originally distilled by the since mothballed Tesetice Distillery, Gold Cock is now produced by the Rudolf Jelinek Distillery (which, like pretty much every Czech distillery, is best known for plum brandy) and uses barley grown in the Moravian region of the Czech Republic. The nose is best described as, “huh, there’s something.” It’s not unfamiliar -- there is toast and malt, and something grassy, but there’s also an underlying...funk. Something to do with noble rot or Tokaji wine. The palate follows suit. I don’t know how a whisky can be thin and chewy at the same time, but this one manages, with flavors of earth, cherries, grass, caramel, and the faintest whiff of smoke. Maybe the bitterness of dark chocolate, but not particularly high-quality dark chocolate. It’s not bad, but it reminds me more of an inexpensive blend than a 12-year-old single malt. If this were to be the Czech Republic’s sole pitch to the whisky world, no one would give much consideration to it.
Luckily, Gold Cock isn’t the Republic’s sole pitch. There is also Hammer Head, an altogether different experience from Gold Cock. The Pradlo Distillery had been making pot-still spirits for years when they decided to try their hand at whisky. Under the Communists, only a few foreign imports were available, and those at high prices only affordable by the Party elite. Pradlo thought a home-grown whisky would do well -- and they were correct, though it took a while to get it right since distiller Vaclav Sitner and his team did not have the option to study at -- or even visit -- Scottish whisky distilleries. They worked entirely from books, experience distilling other spirits, and trial and error.
Early on they discovered their native peat lent the whisky a foul taste, so they arranged to import a huge pile of Scottish peat -- cheap to buy, but not so cheap to transport. After nearly a decade, Pradlo began mass-producing whisky in 1984. It was indeed a hit, but a few years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and the Velvet Revolution swept the Communists out of power. Suddenly the Czech market was open to foreigners, and Scottish and Irish whisky rolled in, eliminating the perceived need for the scrappy young Czech whisky. For two decades, Pradlo’s last batch of whisky was semi-forgotten and left to age in 100% Czech oak casks, until the distillery was purchased by London-based Stock Spirits -- which didn’t know at the time that there was a bunch of barrels of whisky in one of the warehouses. When they discovered it, they also discovered that it was remarkably good. Taking a name from the huge hammer mill installed at the distillery in 1928, Hammer Head was born.
If Gold Cock is dismissible, Hammer Head is one to which people should pay attention. The nose is toasted malt, wood polish, and vanilla with a hint of citrus. The taste is big and malty, with more lemon citrus notes (reminds me of Auchentoshan), leather, anise, and oak. There’s something that reminds me of the barn my grandfather dried his tobacco crop in when I was a lad, only with a lot fewer jumping spiders. The finish is warm and peppery. I don’t know what they did with all that Scottish peat, but there’s little if any trace of it in this whisky. It’s two decades of rest result in a nicely balanced, easy to drink whisky. If you placed this in a blind tasting, it would be comfortable alongside a Speyside or Lowland, though at a much cheaper price should you be able to find it.
It’s available in the Czech Republic of course, and cheapest at duty-free, but as I mentioned, you can’t actually buy it and bring it back to the US without finagling your layovers and checked baggage. Buying it in a store will almost double the price, but given how cheap it is, it’s still worth it. Since Stock Spirits is a British company, Americans can find it in the UK at travel shops, a few stores, and online if you don’t mind the shipping fee. Given the limited quantity and likely limited appeal, it’s doubtful Hammer Head will ever find its way into the United States by any other transport than checked luggage and duty free bags.