Most people regard the Czech Republic as beer country, and understandably so. After all, it’s home to the city of České Budějovice, formerly known as Budweis, as well as Plzeň, better known as Pilsen. Prague remains in no danger of a brew pub or beer hall shortage, but in recent years, numerous wine and craft cocktail bars have also opened. Indeed, there are now so many tempting options that focus on either wine or cocktails, I found it difficult to trim my drinking itinerary into something that would fit into the time allowed (and that wouldn’t cause irreparable harm to my liver).
Prague remains in no danger of a brew pub or beer hall shortage, but in recent years, numerous wine and craft cocktail bars have also opened.
Even many dedicated connoisseurs will likely be surprised to learn that the Czech Republic makes excellent wines nowadays. A handful of vineyards dot the Bohemian countryside, but most are concentrated in the Southern Moravia region, south of Brno. I became especially fond of the local Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling), which could well become the country’s signature grape. At its best, it has notable focus, refined acidity and certain exotic notes, like ginger, galangal and incense. The Czech Republic’s climate makes ripening red wine grapes more difficult, but I discovered a number of beautiful examples of velvety Svatovavřinecké (St. Laurent) and spicy Frankovka (Blaufränkisch). Exploring local bottlings in Prague’s stylish wine bars is a great pleasure.
In season, it’s wise to make reservations at most of these bars, especially those that focus on craft cocktails. But during our off-season visit, we were able to walk right in and sit down without having to wait at each of these venues.
Autentista occupies a vaulted space in the heart of Prague’s Old Town, but it looks sleek and contemporary. It opened in 2019 in a more convenient location than its acclaimed sister wine bar, Veltlin. Both venues emphasize natural wines, as in wines vinified with low-intervention methods often involving native yeasts, little added sulfur and no filtration. It’s easy for natural wines to go wrong, with off flavors and overbearing pickle notes, but here the examples proved delicious. The helpful and friendly bartender, Aneta, first poured a fragrant 2018 Martin Vajčner Welschriesling, made with foot-treaded grapes and aged two years in Moravian oak. It felt taut and juicy, with an undertone of butter and a forceful drive to a rather mineral finish. The wine was excellent on its own, as well as paired with one of the three “ferment bowls” on the menu, composed of toothsome pearl barley topped with tart fermented kale, savory bacon and a red pepper sauce. (A light and focused 2018 Petr Kočařík Pinot Noir, redolent of lively sour cherry fruit, didn’t quite stand up to it.) I asked Aneta to pour one more wine that she thought we should try. She chose well: a citrusy and nutty 2016 Vína Herzánovi Sylvánské Zelené (Silvaner), aged in the Georgian fashion, in amphora-like qvevri. This upscale-feeling bar will please any wine lover with a sense of adventure.
Řetězová 10. Tel. (420) 602-587-827
Edgier than the other bars on this list, Bokovka is hidden away in an old courtyard, just off busy Dlouhá. Also occupying a vaulted space, this bar has a gritty industrial-chic sensibility, emphasized by its disconcerting chandeliers, each composed of three dim fluorescent tubes sticking out from giant clumps of wax. They looked like something out of a dystopian science fiction film — very Czech. Since the tables with sheepskin-covered stools along the wall were occupied, we sat at the central counter of polished cement. Bright young bartenders help patrons choose from a row of open bottles along the counter, including both local and international selections. I was charmed by a spritzy and honeyed 2018 Ota Ševčík “Grefty” blend of Welschriesling and Grüner Veltliner, aged in both oak and acacia barrels, as well as the floral and supple 2016 Nepraš & Co. Grand Cuvée “Gravettien” blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Who would have guessed such grapes could ripen here? But it was wine from Burgundian varieties that truly seduced me. The intense and complex 2015 Piálek & Jäger Chardonnay had rich aroma of buttered popcorn, refined acidity and gingery spiciness, keeping it balanced. And the elegant 2017 Jaroslav Springer/Tomáš Springer Čtvrtě Vineyard Pinot Noir was cherry-vanilla pie in a glass. Yet it was a serious wine, with juicy acidity and notes of earth. I bought bottles of both to take home. For the wine lover who is young at heart (Bokovka translates as “hipster”), this atmospheric bar offers exciting choices in a setting that could only be in Prague. Closed Sunday.
Dlouhá 37.Tel. (420) 731-492-046
A five-minute walk from the Mucha Museum, this bright and welcoming wine bar on Senovážné Square has a wide selection of Czech wines by the glass. I was also tempted to try one of the high-end international wines available by Coravin (a system that allows one to access the wine in a bottle without opening it), such as a great growth Rheingau Riesling or a premier cru Chablis. But I stuck to my guns and asked the cheerful and knowledgeable bartender to help arrange a varied tasting of Czech bottlings. I ended up with more than I bargained for, with half-portions of no fewer than seven wines before me! Standouts included a refined 2018 Kadrnka Welschriesling with notes of red apple and galangal, a floral and savory 2018 Krásná Hora Tramín Červený (Gewürztraminer), and a darkly fruity 2017 Sedlák Blaufränkisch with a surprising lift of eucalyptus freshness. This bustling branch of Vinograf will please a wide range of clientele, and it can provide a wonderful introduction to the range of Czech wine. Closed Sunday.
Vinograf (Nové Město)
Senovážné Nám. 23. Tel. (420) 214-214-681
Vinograf has a second, smaller location across the river on a quiet lane in Malá Strana. Its vaulted interior feels cozy and romantic, and the wine selection is just as good as at the larger bar in Nové Město. A friendly bartender was able to help me select yet another memorable tasting of seven wines. After a very classy Sekt Jan Petrák Blanc de Noir, I had a lovely and unusual 2019 J. Stávek White Blaufränkisch, a light peach-hued wine made with red grapes. It smelled of kettle corn, oddly enough, and tasted of apple, strawberry and lemon. But J. Stávek’s 2016 (red) Blaufränkisch was the real star, a gorgeous wine with dark fruit, luscious vanilla, a zap of black pepper and some well-integrated tannins. The other reds I tried were also delicious. A savory 2018 Žernosecké St. Laurent from Bohemia had plummy fruit and leafy freshness, and a heavenly 2018 Ilias Family Reserve Merlot presented rich cherry fruit and refined chocolatey tannins. As at Vinograf’s other location, it’s possible to purchase wine to take home, and purchase I did.
Vinograf (Malá Strana)
Míšeňská 8. Tel. (420) 604-705-730
One of Prague’s most famous cocktail bars, Hemingway Bar is a minute’s walk from the Smetana Hotel. Even in the off-season, its small candlelit rooms, spread out over two levels, were busy with tourists and locals alike on the Friday evening we visited. We didn’t have a reservation, but the woman at the door found us a table in a lounge upstairs. In spite of the many patrons, our waitress took time to chat with us about the numerous appealing cocktails on the menu, all of which she could ably describe. I opted for a “Taste of India,” a cocktail that one would only ever find in the Czech Republic: ghee-infused Becherovka Original (the country’s most famous spirit) mixed with housemade curry cordial and garnished with a bay leaf. The spices of the curry combined beautifully with the notes of cinnamon and herbaceous bitterness in the Becherovka, and the touch of ghee smoothed out the texture. We also ordered a riff on a gin and tonic, “Las Vacaciones de Hemingway,” a turquoise concoction of basil-infused gin, blue Curaçao, rosemary tincture and tonic, garnished with a sour starfish candy and served in a seashell of glass. Notes of citrus and fresh herbs elevated the drink, and sipping it from the tip of the “shell” made me feel as if I were partaking in some sort of ancient libation. It was the most fun I’ve had drinking a gin and tonic outside of Africa. Make a reservation in advance, if possible, or prepare for a wait at more popular times.
Karolíny Světlé 26. Tel. (420) 773-974-764
Parlour’s barely marked little door is a short walk from the top of Wenceslas Square. Its vaulted cellar space, accessible only by stairs, felt both stylish and cozy, with comfortable leather chairs around candlelit tables. Illuminated cabinets along the walls held shelves of old decanters, crystal coupes and wine glasses. Here, too, it is ordinarily wise to make an advance reservation if possible, but we risked an unannounced Thursday-night visit and discovered a mostly empty bar. Rather than hand us a menu, the bartender asked us about what sorts of flavors we like in our drinks, in order to customize cocktails for us. I expressed how pleasantly surprised I was that he took so much time with us. “I don’t know you, and the bar is not busy, so I’m happy to talk,” he replied. He translated my preferences (brown, bitter, sour, strong, complex) into a thoroughly delicious cocktail of rye, a bit of bourbon, red vermouth, bitter Suze liqueur, lemon and a touch of simple syrup. It was a sort of whiskey sour-Manhattan collision. I loved it. The handful of other patrons when we visited were all younger, but cocktail lovers of any age will feel comfortable here.
Krakovská 15. Tel. (420) 777-200-015
Under the same ownership as Parlour, Schody Home Bar is “a speakeasy hidden in plain sight,” as Parlour’s bartender described it. Indeed, its exterior gave me pause. Schody stands in one of Prague’s most touristy locations, in Malá Strana on the steps leading up to the castle. A window opens to the steps, with large English menus on its shutters touting coffees and cocktails to go! It might as well have had the words “Tourist Trap” written in pink letters above the door. But the bar had received such favorable press since it opened in 2018, I decided we should persevere. On a Friday at 6 p.m., we were the only patrons in the small space, which had just a handful of tables along a wall embellished with a honeycomb-like mosaic. The friendly bartender, Artem, approached, and as at Parlour, he asked what sort of drinks we were interested in, rather than offering a menu. “We do have a menu,” Artem told us, “but we never use it. We just talk to people. I don’t even know what drinks are on the menu,” he said with a laugh. I asked for something made with Becherovka, and Artem came up with a wonderful concoction of Becherovka, gin, mezcal and lime. I loved how the bittersweet Becherovka got a bright lift from the gin and a smoky undertone from the mezcal. The lime was the glue that held it all together. Schody Home Bar may look tacky at first glance, but inside is a stylish contemporary bar staffed by mixologists who really know their stuff. Closed Monday-Thursday and after 6 p.m. Sunday.
Schody Home Bar
Zámecké Schody 8. Tel. (420) 739-579-839