Show me the way to the best whisky bar
József Máté, alias Mateo, is a true whisky connoisseur. Along with nearly 200 brands stocked at his eponymous bar, he also has a fair few rarities stashed away at home. He can talk knowledgeably about consumption rituals, distillation methods and national peculiarities – but doesn’t look askance if anyone asks for a Coke with their drink. We visited Budapest’s very own whisky sanctuary, the tiny Mateo’s Drink Bár, which offers the widest range of spirits available on the Buda side.
Back in the day, Hungarians only knew whisky from American films. Mateo, born in Sopron by the border with the West, had a head start on his compatriots. For his 18th birthday, he received his first bottle of whisky from an Austrian friend, which is when the love affair started. At that time, the mid-1980s, only a very narrow range of whiskies could be found in Hungary: Vat 69, Club 99 and, believe it or not, a Czechoslovak brand. While the selection has slowly expanded since the Wall came down, Hungarian hospitality has mostly been based on the same labels for decades – Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s and Famous Grouse.
“If you have a little money, why not order a decent drink?” thought Mateo, who worked in telecommunications and information technology before turning his hobby into a full-time job. For a more sophisticated, fully-fledged flavour, you don’t have to pay more: at the same price as a basic Johnnie Walker red, for example, is Hankey Bannister, officially Churchill’s own work tipple – hence the iconic hat on the label. It was also favoured by George V and Edward VII.
As much as Mateo’s bar feels like another planet, the drinks available here are all commercially available items that anyone can find. It is true that, due to regulations, many states in the US cannot export spirits into the European Union, so the bourbon selection is narrower than the Scottish or Irish brands available. The exotic, non-marketable rarities Mateo keeps at home. For example, Metallica’s own whiskey had its own private adventure to get here, first shipped to another state, then England, then Germany and then Hungary.
Mateo is happy to provide his customers with all kinds of other whisky trivia. For example, whisky only matures in the barrel and not in the bottle, so a bottle of 40 years vintage is no different to a 12-year-old whisky. It can mature in barrels for up to 50-60 years which is when it reaches its top price because in the meantime, it will be evaporating, and there will be little left at the end. Furthermore, darker whisky is not the best – even the smokiest varieties can be quite clear.
The bar stocks some 300 spirits, of which 195 are whisky. There are also nearly 40 kinds of rum, 16 gins – each with their own special tonic – tequila, mescal and vodka, as well as assorted wines and beers. The main attraction, however, is whisky, the most expensive running to 60,000-70,000 forints. A glass of the extremely peaty Scottish Octomore, for example, costs 7,900 forints.
The motto here is “Life begins beyond Chivas”. Lesser-known brands dominate: Mateo’s mission is to showcase new flavours and aromas to customers and explain the difference between Scots whisky, Irish whiskey and American bourbon – as well as describing the miracles being performed by today’s Japanese producers.
If a less experienced whisky consumer pops in and sees what’s on offer, he’ll be bamboozled by the many colours, designs, shapes and brands. “I try to figure out which kind of aromas, flavours, food, even toiletries, they like, and compare them with a certain drink,” says Mateo. “I want to dispel the notion that every whisky is the same. I have never tasted two the same. You just have to know what to consume. The Scots say if you respect the drink, that shows you know what you’re talking about”.
This means you don’t have to neck it like pálinka brandy but enjoy its aroma for a while. This also has its own ceremony: whisky must first be left to open out. Mateo shows us the official Scottish single-malt tasting cup, authenticated with the seal of Queen Elizabeth. You can already sense the fragrances and aromas, even a slight oiliness on the rim of the glass, just like wine. After filling it, the alcohol is concentrated, perceptible if we sniff it. Water is then dripped into it through a small pipette, instigating the so-called ‘opening out’. The water runs off the top of the oily drink, making it smoother and softer.
Mateo mostly loves Scottish single malts, including the smokier types, drinks with real body and a hint of distant campfires. He shows one example: Big Peat, which blends four major Scottish brands like a cuvée for wine.
Part of the selection is the Whisky of Thrones. For the final season of the hit TV series, the best Scottish manufacturers arranged for whiskies to be labelled with the major families in the story. Lagavulin is one of the best in the world, and was thus linked with the Lannister family, representing the sign of royalty. In addition to the Starks and the Greyjoys, a bottle was dedicated to the Night’s Watch, and despite this being a promotional exercise, turned out to be of excellent quality. They are available in speciality stores and a number of select bars. Here, it’s great that fans can sample them, because a bottle costs more than 40,000 forints, a significant amount for any local consumer.
It matters to Mateo that he isn’t in the party quarter, and is wary of ruin bars. He reckons that whisky wouldn’t suit a stag party although many informed him that he could clean up with this kind of bar in the city centre. He enjoys Buda, the speakeasy bar style, where he can chat with customers in comfort. A nice little whisky appreciation society has been formed, with rare varieties are served at monthly samplings. He also prefers small groups for these tastings, and gives whisky presentations elsewhere.
Mateo goes on holiday in August and will only open up again in September. So in July, therefore, it’s worth popping into this air-conditioned haven, a cool, calm oasis in the heat.
District XII. Marvány utca 27
Open: Tue-Fri 5pm-11pm, Sat 6pm-11pm