Over the four years that I have lived here, considerably less than some expats, I feel as though I’ve seen a lot of great things in Prague, as well as a lot of great changes. As I have mentioned before, I do have a love for the booze, but these days booze is no longer just booze but an evolving artform. Aleš Půta is one of few bartenders who has brought this art to the Czech Republic. Having spent a large amount of time abroad and researching the best ingredients and recipes for outstanding cocktails, his story is definitely a memorable one. Aleš’ journey with the Hemingway bar in Prague could almost be compared to Ernest Hemingway himself. Like the great writer, the bar has seen its share of intense ups and downs, only to emerge triumphant.. and tasty. Aleš gives us an inside look into his journey as well as letting us in on the perfect ingredients for not only decent cocktails, but a decent bar. From creating cocktails named after Hemingway’s wives, carefully selecting and crafting the beautiful interior and creating a massive selection of rums and quality absinthe, it’s been one hell of a ride.
When did it all begin with this bar?
We have been open for more than 5 years and this year we’ve received a few awards, so we’ve had a lot of interviews and a lot of interest in the bar. We started in 2009 and I was really happy to open a real cocktail bar in Prague because we are focused on original recipes; we like the old fashioned style cocktails. We also twist classics but today people like more of a sweet taste so we had to take these classics and make them a little sweeter. It was very hard in the beginning because we had very few customers – we were waiting almost one year for nothing, but we stayed and tried to make the best of it. Then after about one and a half years, there came a magical day when everything changed.
So it changed quickly?
More and more people started to come. We started with just 3 bartenders, now altogether we have 17. We also now have two bars and we started with 30 seats and now we have over 70. We’re still searching for the best quality cocktails and testing new ingredients. We have a passion for the job. The bartenders even win competitions. We’ve also had a lot of friends from all around the world that have come to help us too. This year we were awarded the 24th best bar in the world.
It’s amazing for the Czech Republic. Czech people don’t know about this kind of cocktail culture.
Would you say that it’s changing now?
Yes, definitely. People are travelling and many tourists come to Prague and they’re always helpful with recommendations. If they ask for a cocktail that we don’t know, we will try to find it on the internet. It’s really different than before.
How did you become interested in mixology?
It started in my family. My father and grandfather worked in hospitality. Originally I wanted to be a professional horse rider, but my father told me that I would be in hospitality too. I was really happy because I was 16 years old and I had already done a bartendering course, it was something special for me. It changed my life.
So Hemingway, aside from being a famous writer, had quite a dramatic life. He was also involved in a lot of the great wars. If you could compare his life to the life of this bar, would you say that it’s similar?
Hemingway’s life was very interesting and honestly he drank a lot.. So yes, and we have a lot of his stories in our cocktails. For example, the ‘100 days cocktail’ which is named after the 100 day ultimatum that Hadley (his wife at the time) gave to Hemingway. If Hemingway could make it through 100 days without seeing Pauline Pfeiffer, then she would grant him a divorce. Hadley thought that Hemingway was just crazy-in-love with Pfeiffer, but after the 100 days he was still in love with her anyway, so she said yes and gave him freedom.
How did you first become interested in Hemingway?
It was in 2001, I was very young and had a lot of passion for this work, I still do. We had a short video on working flair with cocktails, juggling bottles etc. One Croatian guy and Canadian girl had a bar in Dubrovnik, and they wanted my help to open a colonial style Hemingway bar. So I spent 4 months there helping them with bartendering. It was from this that I got this dream. Then I thought “yes, I will have the best Hemingway bar in the world”.
And have you read his books? Do you have a favourite?
‘The Sun Also Rises’, but I actually like reading books about Hemingway, many of our bartenders like his story too.
If the real Hemingway was in your bar, what do you think he would say?
I think he was a little bit strange, especially before his death. He had paranoia about the FBI and other things… I think he would tell us to shut up (laughs), but he was the most famous barfly ever, so maybe he would like us.
If you could compare Prague to a cocktail, which would it be?
Well, we really love Becherovka. After the Velvet Revolution, a lot of alcohol came to the Czech Republic and everyone forgot about what was originally ours. Becherovka is unique, it’s very good quality and it’s really different. But, as for a cocktail hmmmm. It’s hard to say. I think our Becherovka cocktail ‘becher butter sour’, which is becherovka infused with ghee butter – this drink is beautiful.
How would you describe Prague?
Home, I think it’s also one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s also the main point in Europe, it’s in the centre – a place you have to go to if you come to Europe. People love it… unless they have a bad experience with taxi drivers, but this isn’t only in Prague.
Who would play you in a movie about your life?
I couldn’t say an actor, but I love (director) Miloš Forman. I’ve heard a lot about his life and I really like how he has created films. He inspired me for a few drinks too.
If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?
I don’t like politics, nor do I like the wasting of materials and things like that, but I don’t think that one person can change something, but maybe I would.
So not only would you go back in time, but you would change something?
Yes, I have many ideas and many dreams so I would maybe change something about my parents, they are shy and don’t travel a lot. They have given me everything now but because of the communism in the past, they couldn’t do anything themselves. I would change this time, the time when the Russians came.
What’s your favourite cocktail?
As a bartender, I love the ‘negroni’. I think bartenders all over the world like this drink.
For a look at the bar, bartenders, stylish interior and mouth-watering drinks list (which you can download as a PDF) visit the website here.
Written by Ryan Keating-Lambert.