Photo: Dave_B_

Tainted liquor brings big changes to Prague’s bar scene.

IN 2008, MY HOST FAMILY threw me a welcome party to celebrate my first week in Prague. The initiation? Shots of Becherovka. Czechs, it was proven, hold their liquor very well. Me? Not so much. I got so drunk I forgot where my bedroom was and fell asleep next to the dog.

Today’s study abroad students will miss out on that experience, as the Czech Republic recently banned the sale and consumption of drinks with 20%+ ABV after a string of deaths associated with methanol-spiked “bootleg liquor.” This black market travesty has resulted in the deaths of at least 26 people and caused serious illness and injury, such as blindness, for many more. So far, two men linked to the poisoning have been arrested and face up to 20 years.

Pub patrons can still enjoy the Czech Republic’s varied selection of Czech beers and wine, but if your typical weekend consists of “SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTS!” good luck trying to find any Becherovka, Fernet, Slivovice, or Absinthe…at least for a little while.

“People like to drink beer, which is good because we can still sell it,” says Honza*, a 22-year old Czech who bartends around Prague. “But many people also drink other things, more expensive drinks, and that is where we make a lot of money from.”

Having studied abroad in the Czech Republic, I know Czech bars make a killing off foreigners. Prague especially is known amongst travelers for its crazy party scene and inexpensive alcohol (beer is cheaper than bottled water).

I met Honza while pub-crawling in Prague with a couple British guys who were in town for a friend’s stag party. Over the course of the evening, I had maybe six beers total. The Brits put back about six shots at each bar. Honza and I bonded over broken English while carrying the drunken gents across Charles Bridge and back to their hotel room around 3 in the morning.

The hard liquor ban went into effect September 14, and has temporarily been relieved for any bottles sealed before January 1, 2012. All newly manufactured alcohol, however, must be tested before distribution and export. The New York Times reports the country “is set to lose $40 million a month in liquor taxes, according to the Finance Ministry.”

Not everyone drinks beer, and places like Prague’s Bar and Books, a venue known for its whiskey menu, don’t even sell it. Cocktails around Prague are also more expensive, averaging about 90Kc or higher. Compare that to a .5L of beer at 25-35Kc; bars and clubs are going to have to up sales of less-alcoholic drinks to match their lost profits from hard liquor.

“The tourists like these kinds of drinks the most,” remarks Honza. He says he gets many requests for Western cocktails, “just because they want to see what a Czech margarita tastes like…. Tourists are good for our economy. People come to Prague to party, but how can you party without drinks?”

* Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.