The finest selected spirits on sale for the connoisseur
The walls of the old shop were covered on all sides by battered wooden shelves, stacked with bottles of Bourbon and Scotch. It was a whiskey lovers paradise - everything from a 30 year aged Highland Park for 139 Euros a bottle, to a young Glengoyne priced at a moderate 30 Euros.
I grabbed the last of the wooden folding chairs, careful not to knock over the best selling bottles, displayed on "aging barrels" throughout the middle of the store.
There were nine of us crammed into the unassuming little "Lokal" Potstill on the Strozzigasse in Vienna’s 8th district. Two men leaned up to a solid oak bar, and another two were wedged into a narrow cotton couch. In front of them stood a small, circular, dark wooden table, where two women were seated next to a young man straddling a wooden stool.
Potstill is like something out of Dickens, a dark, old-fashioned pub-like spot, filled with a air of mystery and history, named for the flask-shaped apparatus used in whiskey or brandy making, a tub where alcohol and water vapor are combined with other vapors that give the mash its aroma.
But all this was still a mystery, as I gave a push on the wooden door to this tiny shop. I had expected it to be heavy; instead it swung wide open -- almost smashing several 300 Euro bottles aligned on the wooden shelves behind the door. All heads turned; I smiled sheepishly; Mercifully, no harm had been done. They turned back to their discussion, and I was free to explore, picking my way among the barrels, peering at the labels that lined the shelves.
But now it was time: Owner and whiskey expert Mario Prinz placed nine glasses on the table in a rather habitual motion. The first round -- the youngest spirits of the evening -- was poured out swiftly and with extreme elegance. Nine small, quick hand movements and our glasses were generously filled and ready to savour.
With each successive bottle (and there were five whiskeys and one bourbon) the conversation took a new turn. The pale Swedish woman seated across from me was the first to comment: "The first one was fruitier than the others," she declared, "and its color was much lighter."
Prinz, overhearing, felt obliged to defend it:
"Its very young and almost too fresh," he admitted. Pointing to the fourth bottle lined-up amongst the others on the table. "Smokey whiskey, now that’s good to drink young."
"Yes!" the well-built, scrubby faced man on the couch nodded: "They tend to have a sweet finish," he added smilingly.
In the distilling process, heat is applied directly to the vessel containing the main ingredients, making a "mash" of grains, malted barely, wheat, rye and corn. From here, they are condensed into what whiskey connoisseurs call the "low wines" or first distillation liquids containing only 25-35% alcohol. Not until they have undergone the second distillation process does the alcohol content reach up to 70%. The product is then put in an oak "aging barrel" so it may develop its rich color, uncouth scent and unique taste over time.
The "Captain," whiskey lover and organizer of the evening, who had been standing by the bar, took a seat around the table as some of the ladies got up for a smoke.
"Ahh," he sighed, as he sunk into his seat. "This reminds me of sitting in an old upholstered brown leather chair surrounded by a library of dust-covered books and old antiques with a fat, tasty Cuban cigar in one hand and a single malt whiskey in the other."
After the fifth or so bottle, conversation turned to a heated discussion of politics and the "death of the world as we know it." Many in the group had comments to contribute:
"They’d take a dog turd and tell you its gold!" barked the "Captain," as he refilled his glass with one of the five whiskey bottles lounging on the table. In the end, action had completely given way to the wisdom of the whiskey. By now, everyone was smiling, a bit giddy and red faced as we moved on from Scotch to Bourbon. Bourbon, Prinz explained, is 51% fermented corn mash and barley. One whiff and the "Captain" was again transported:
"It reminds me of sitting on a porch in the Deep South on a sticky summer afternoon, rocking back and forth on a creaking chair, gun in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other." A dazed smiled appeared on the face of the elegantly dressed man next to him, almost as if he were picturing the scene, allowing himself to be envelloped in it.
The "Captain" continued: "I feel all warm and fuzzy inside." He found the bourbon "very flavorful," something you could really sit back and enjoy. "But don’t get me wrong," he concluded, "Bourbon and coke ain’t bad either."
Somewhere around 22:00 (no one could be quite sure of anything by then), things began winding down. The guests gathered up their things and made their way out of the shop, being extra, extra careful not to knock anything over. Some left with bags of bottles, others determined to come back for the "Friday Night Whiskey Lounge," where men come to smoke cigars and down their shots, holding forth on the night’s topic. Out on the cold desolate street, reality struck, and oh so slowly sank in. A short, spunky woman rather matter-of-factly looked up.
"If you want to meet men," she said, pausing, ... "I guess you have to take up whiskey drinking."
Half smiling -- and somewhat awe struck -- we dispersed into the night.