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Czech communist whisky matures to excellence

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 28, 2013 at 1:41 am •  Published: April 28, 2013
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PRADLO DISTILLERY, Czech Republic (AP) — The Scottish peat was put on trucks and trains. The destination was Communist-era Czechoslovakia. The recipient: apparatchiks desperate for a decent whisky.

The journey beyond the Iron Curtain during the Cold War turned out to be the easy part. When the batch arrived, the Czech distillers had only a faint idea how to make whisky — and it took years to get things right.

"It was one thing to read about it in books, but reality is something different," recalled Vaclav Sitner, a member of the team tasked with creating a premium whisky.

Now, almost 40 years on, the last batches of "Hammer Head" are winning rave reviews. And, in a historical twist, they are owned by a U.S. hedge fund that bought the beverage company that Sitner worked for.

Sitner, whose name still appears on the label, recalls the "alchemy" and "joy" as they concocted the whisky. It sold well despite its relatively high price in a communist economy.

In Czechoslovakia, living standards were higher than in most other communist nations, but only a limited variety of Western products were available at special stores for those privileged enough to have access to foreign currency. In common stores, there was a significant shortage of Western goods, from bananas to electronics.

"There were no means to import foreign whisky," Sitner said. Communist states' currencies were not convertible and the struggling command economies failed to produce enough decent goods to sell in exchange for hard currency.

The original plan was to source all the ingredients and equipment locally — but met no luck.

"The problem was with the peat, because it didn't work," said Sitner. "The peat we had was from South Bohemia and in combination with oak shavings it created all sorts of problems."

"It was the most expensive peat in Europe. The (Scottish) peat didn't actually cost that much but the transport cost a fortune. We placed it on trucks and a train carriage. One carriage was enough for us for 5-6 years."

Sitner and his colleagues had to rely completely on their own skills since they had no chance to travel to Scotland to visit distilleries. They needed a good barley supplier and knowledge of how to grind it, a source of suitable water and new oak barrels where the product could mature for at least three years.

A small distillery in Pradlo, in the west of the country, coincidentally had a hammer mill of the kind used in Scottish distilleries. Dating from the 1920s, it was the only one in the entire country. Work started in 1976; three years of tests were needed before trial production could start — and mass production started eight years later.

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