Upside down – Slovakia
I just returned from a week vacation in Slovakia. My wife and I spent 1500KM driving around the mountainous, rivers filled, rainy east European country to which we arrived with just about no information in advance and except for hotels booking, and some specific sites recommendations had no idea what we are going to do (this is very no like us when going abroad).
Few weeks back while we were still planning the trip, I sent my good friend Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast.com an email asking if he had any information or contacts with regards to whisky and Slovakia. Mark didn’t have such information, but he did take my question and raised it in that week’s cast, asking the WhiskyCast devotees if any of them had any information and/or other recommendations in general about Slovakia that they could provide for me.
Well, few days passed ‘quietly’, and if to be the drama queen I sometimes am according to my wife – “I was beginning to lose all hope” when all of sudden an email from Mark appeared in my Gmail inbox saying that Petr H (the full name is with me), a fellow listener who commented about the Czech “Hammer Head” whisky (one I must try), can give counselling about Slovakia. Immediately I sent an email to Petr thanking him for his willingness to assist.
Petr told me that Slovakia is no whisky country. He confirmed my knowledge that it is a wine country and told me of a wine town to visit, however we both failed to find any material about what I read somewhere as the Slovakian Wine Route (by the way, now that I’ve returned I know that it actually has a web site – www.mvc.sk). Regarding whisky, Petr did a much thanked effort for me and contacted two Slovakian friends of his each gave him the name of a different whisky bar in the Slovakian capital Bratislava. To be honest when we were there I completely forgot about the first whisky bar (Whisky Bar 44), and had carved in memory the name of the second one – “Upside Down”.
“Upside Down” is located in the compact historical centre of Bratislava. Why compact? A colleague of mine who is Slovakian in origin, described it like so, and boy was he right. It is quite small, and easy to get around by on foot. It is so small, that we’ve passed next to “Upside Down” at least 3 times without realizing (and no, it doesn’t hide itself, there are just too many things to see on the small narrow streets).
We went to “Upside Down” after a day of city sightseeing with my full intentions to have a relaxing dram. Intentions are good, but there was no relaxation and due to very good reasons. “Upside Down” is a contemporary modern place, very well designed, with good atmosphere, good music and outstanding service! The reason I couldn’t relax was the fact they currently have a variety of 205 whiskies, soon to be 250 (around Oct/Nov). I was like a boy in a toy store; A rather big toy store.
The bar is all about whisky, starting from its design and all the way to the service. The ceiling is covered by wave shaped plastic in which they have scattered barely, malt, seaweed, sea salt and some other whisky making related elements. The place itself is divided to about 3 areas/rooms – at the front there is the bar, behind it overcrowded shelves with dozens of whisky bottles in the centre and other non-whiskies on the sides and few tables scattered around; in the middle there is a ‘restaurant’ like elegant contemporary designed area/room with whisky bottles cylinders posing on high selves on both sides of one of the nicest wine cabinets I’ve ever seen – at first glance it looks like a wooden wall with round halls all over. Then you realize that those holes are actually the tops of wine bottle peeping at you. The wooden “wall” is actually rows and rows of trap doors (as far as I recall and my apologies if I’m mistaken), each hiding several bottles; at the back there is another area, but I didn’t go there (my wife did but I don’t think she will recall how it looks, in fact she doesn’t recall such a room at all). The whole place gives one a good warm feeling that is aimed at relaxing and having a good time – but again I was a in a toy store – couldn’t relax but boy did I have good time.
“Upside Down” personnel don’t want their clientele to drink whisky. They want them to LOVE whisky, and this is very clear from the whisky menu design and contents and I call it a glorious menu (and I do mean that). As you open the menu a page explaining the origins of whisky greets you with a smile and historical facts. Then on the following pages you are smooth talked by explanations about Scotland’s whisky areas (I do recall a map of Scotland) and guided walkthrough, phrased as a mere suggestion, of how to nose and taste whisky.
The whiskies themselves are organized first by single malts according to Scotland’s whisky areas – Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, Islands and Campbeltown (I don’t remember if there was a Speyside category or not). After the Single malts pages the whiskies are organized by Scotch blends and non-Scottish whiskies by country of origin – I must confess, I didn’t really give much time to those pages as I was fascinated by the Scottish single malts pages. At the end of the menu there are also non-whisky drinks.
To the whisky beginner the “Upside Down” offers options that I never saw anywhere else except for wineries – tasting combinations of various whiskies according to themes. For example, I started my evening with a combination named “Famous Malt” which is four 15ml mini drams of Glenmorangie expressions – the Original 10YO, Nectar D’Or, Lasanta and Quinta Ruban, for the mere price of 9 Euros – I have at home the Astar, and already tasted the Nectar D’Or at the Whisky Israel peat summit#1 thanks to Kfir having the bottle, and just had to try more Glenmorangie expressions (and mind you, I’m in love with this distillery now, interesting coming from a peat head). There is also a combination offering to taste whiskies from different countries (Scotland, Ireland, America, Canada, Japan) and one other combination. In addition to the tasting combinations, there is an “Exploration Menu” and “Investigation Menu”, both having a list of several whiskies from which one can choose 5 expressions to try for merely 5 Euros (Exploration) or 8 Euros (Investigation).
Just few minutes after Miro, our extremely nice waiter, had brought me the amazing ox tail soup I ordered, he came back with a small wooden tray, on which, in own special placeholders, were standing four long stem tulip shaped nosing glasses with the Glenmorangie expressions I ordered and in the middle of the tray stood a little bowl with dry fruits – a very elegant and inviting presentation.
A small tip we’ve discovered about Bratislava – like with any other touristic city, most restaurants in the historical centre are a bit expensive and the food given does not match the prices. We’ve discovered that it is well worth to go into more elegant places, pay a little bit more that you would in a regular “tourist” place, and get outstanding dishes. This is the case for “Upside Down” and also for some other places (there is a huge shopping mall, “Eurovea“, on the bank of the Danube where the restaurants are facing the river, a little bit more expensive but serve very good food).
I broke into whisky oriented conversation with Miro, who has been working at the bar only for the past 2 months, and as he said “is still learning what he can about whisky”, and so I decided to recommend him about whiskyisrael.co.il, which ended with him passing it on to the barkeep, who came to me asking “why have you send this to me?”. Very quickly Marek, the barkeep, and I got into a long conversation about whiskies, about “Upside Down” whisky menu (to be changed soon due to the addition of new whiskies – as I mentioned previously), whisky taxation, whisky websites and more.
As part of our chat, I gathered from Marek that in Slovakia they can only sell whiskies which ABV is a round number such as 46, 55 etc, because apparently, paper banners that are put on the bottle to mark that duty was paid, are prepared in advance and are extremely expensive to make. The funny thing is that there is only 19% tax on whisky in Slovakia, but one who wants to import a non-round number ABV whisky, one must pay a lot for the preparation of adequate duty paid paper banner.
After my wife and I had our main courses (a beef burger for her that she said was excellent, and a brilliant veal dish for me), I continued to order a whisky for myself as a desert. As I was looking again through the menu, my eyes fell upon Glen Scotia 12YO. Ever since I came back from Scotland on May, I’ve been reading Richard Paterson’s book “Goodness Nose” (yes yes I’m a slow reader…). In the book Richard talks about his time at the beginning of his career at Glen Scotia, and describes its whisky in a very romantic light. Having that in the back of my mind, I just had to try the Glen Scotia.
Like with the tasting menu, the Glen Scotia presentation was very elegant, arriving in a low bowl glass in its own private wooden tray that also had two placeholders with dry fruits in them; A worthy serving for whisky. I enjoyed the Glen Scotia very much; it was a very good dram to end a good day, a good evening and a great meal.
Speaking to Marek about the bar, I learned that “Upside Down” had won the 2009 Slovak Bar Awards for the best drinks menu and the variety they had. Marek was very passionate when he spoke about the bar, its achievements and future it was quite a pleasure speaking with him and taking his and the bar’s photographs.
Glen Scotia 12 Year Old, 40% ABV.
Colour: well, was difficult to observe due to lighting, but seemed bras like. Orangy gold.
Nose: Vanilla, a bit of smokiness, oranges/orange pills, a bit of nuts, maybe coconut, malt sweetness?
Palate: Oily, some peat, some oak, berries and a bit of charred toast hiding in the back.
Finish: gentle and lingering, wood, nuts and peatiness again.
All in all a nice whisky I would gladly add to my bar as dram from those soon to come autumn warmish days.
To summarize -
“Upside Down”, steak and whisky house at the historic Slovak national theatre building, the historical city centre, Bratislava. Straight A place for food lovers and most definitely for whisky lovers. As I’ve mentioned – Great food, excellent whisky variety and serving, and outstanding service! If I ever return to Bratislava, I am sure to be found upside downed again.
Thanks for reading.
Slantie, Shana Tova and G’mar Chatima Tova,