Food & Drink
Bugsy’s and The Godfather of the Czech Cocktail Culture
By Hannah Burns
While the name Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel may conjure images of a 1940s-era gangster, he was also the mastermind and innovator behind the glory that is the Las Vegas strip—where others saw vast stretches of sand, he saw opportunity. So it’s no surprise that Václav Vojíř turned to Bugsy for inspiration when, just six years after the liberation, he decided to do what no Czech had done before: open a cocktail bar.
When Bugsy’s Bar opened its doors in March 1995 with an extensive menu of more than 300 drinks, its concept was foreign to most Czechs. Where was the wine and beer? Vojíř, one of the co-founders of the bar and now an award-winning cocktail bartender, says he had to begin hosting cocktail tastings to persuade wary visitors to give the strange drinks a try. The first tasting featured the mojito, which resulted in something of a “mojito mania”—people tried it, they liked it, they really liked it, but they didn’t know what else they liked, so they stuck with mojitos for a while. This, along with the help of some expats who got the ball rolling with customers, jumpstarted the popularity and respect of Bugsy’s Bar.
Though Bugsy’s has dropped its menu selection from the original, overwhelming 300 choices to 16-18 signature cocktails, it hasn’t lost its acclaim as the pioneer behind Prague’s now-lively cocktail bar industry. Many former Bugsy’s employees even went on to start their own cocktail bars in the city, forming a local community around the cocktail craft. Bugsy may have been the original Las Vegas mafioso, but Vojíř is the Prague cocktail industry’s trusted Godfather.
Over the many years since Bugsy’s grand opening, the bar has been remodeled only twice—once after losing their original interior in the flood of 2002, and then a second time in 2010. As a result, the bar has all the charm of a Bugsy-era establishment with a few modern twists. A back-lit Dom Perignon banner lays on the back wall, atop a deep red cushioned wall. Shiny, smooth black leather seats and booths complement stone detailing that surrounds the bar. The menu, which is more of a cocktail guide, adds to the intimate atmosphere—it’s a small but sturdy, matte black book, containing the story behind of each cocktail with intricate and racy artwork throughout.
Vojíř’s persona is an accurate representation of Bugsy’s as a whole: modern and put-together with a hint of old-time charm and a unique set of interests and history. But his interest in libations extends beyond just cocktails, and as a result, so does the selection at Bugsy’s.
Vojíř is the owner and curator of the extensive wine collection that finds its home at the cocktail bar. The collection includes everything from more modern favorites to rare and exclusive finds, like Parisian bottles from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some are even treasures to the world, with only a handful of remaining bottles.
Patrons can purchase these precious wines, but only to drink in-house. There are absolutely no exceptions to this rule, as Vojíř is extremely fond and protective of his collection. He’s even turned away potential buyers, who wanted to purchase the wines and take them away for their own collections. The upside? Each buyer of the collection receives a book, outlining every bottle in Vojíř’s collection. The descriptions go as far as giving the weather forecast for the day each bottle was harvested, and how each of these factors affects the flavor of the wine.
You can catch Bugsy’s at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this summer—they are the main distributor for the festival, and their food and spirits reign supreme each year. But the true Bugsy’s experience can only be found at the establishment itself—the only cocktail bar on Prague’s luxury Pařížská street, which is lined with luxurious brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Prada. It’s a fitting locale, as Bugsy’s is the perfect combination of luxury and exclusivity —it finds its perfect home tucked into the corner of Pařížská.
As for all of the rewards that that bar has received over the years, Vojíř remains modest and thankful for his success.
“The awards are not so important, I’m most proud of the interest of the people,” he says.