Bratislava, Slovakia, is a little-known jewel in Central Europe. It’s often overshadowed by its glitzy Austrian neighbor, Vienna, roughly an hour by train to the west, or its enchanting cousin, Prague, in the Czech Republic.
The cobblestone streets, quaint buildings and steeples are far less crowded than most European capitals, encouraging guests to take their time and wander through the compact center, admiring the old-world charm while soaking up the enticing scents from restaurants and bars.
One of the most enamoring views of city can be found at the Lemontree & Sky Bar Restaurant, which has a summer terrace with a breathtaking panorama of the historical center of the old town.
It was here that I got a chance to sample local spirits and food all in one glass. A cocktail called the Loki caught my eye. It was described on the menu as “Slovakian borovička in harmony with Slovakian Bentianna, local sheep cheese and orange.”
Borovička is a Slovak alcoholic beverage flavored with juniper berries. I asked if it tasted similar to gin, but the flavor is actually closer to genever, the traditional juniper liquor from the Netherlands and Belgium, from which gin evolved.
According to a Slovak dictionary, borovička derives its name from the Slovak word for juniper, borievka.
Bentianna is a specialty herbal liquor, similar to a honey wine, hailing from Bratislava. It’s forged from several different kinds of honey, juice from muscat and furmint grapes and Tokay wine.
Some of the herbs included in the mix are gentian, echinacea, lemon balm and mother-of-thyme. Great yellow gentian dates as far back as ancient Egypt, where it was believed to have magical effects.
Bartender Michal Dojak called the Loki an experimental drink. It’s something the other bars don’t have. He spoke with pride as he described it.
“Sheep cheese is like a Slovakian national treasure,” he said. “Borovička is the national drink of Slovakia. It’s a way to combine cocktails and gastronomy to show people from abroad the best of Slovakia. We want to give our guests a really nice feeling.”
The sheep cheese is incorporated in two ways. First, it is infused into the Bentianna in the restaurant’s kitchen using a sous-vide technique, which transforms it into something Dojak describes as “our own vermouth or syrup.” Second, it’s presented as a garnish, served in little dollops on a crisp potato cracker, which is balanced across the glass.
The drink’s moniker comes from the Marvel comic book universe, where Loki is the god of illusions.
“Illusion is what describes Loki [the drink] best,” Dojak said. “You think at first that it doesn’t go together, cheese in a spirit, but yet we find a way. It’s an illusion. You think you’re not going to like it, but it’s actually a pretty nice drink.”
Personally, I was quite impressed. It was fruit-forward on the nose — mostly from the Bentianna, but there was also a hint of orange from the borovička — with a whiff of earthiness from the cheese. Taste-wise, it was sweet up-front, followed by dryness from the juniper and a robust sensation from the cheese.
When I combined it with the appetizer garnish, I was greeted with a burst of saltiness followed by a creamy umami of cheese, which led nicely into the herbaceous taste of the cocktail — creating the full circle of flavor (salty, umami, sweet, dry/bitter).
If you wish to make a Loki at home, borovička and Bentianna can be ordered online — or check with some of D.C.’s larger liquor stores. While the infusion process is quite complicated, you can still add that layer of flavor by serving your cocktail with a sheep cheese and crackers on the side. The mixing ratio is two parts Bentianna to one part borovička.
However, a much better idea is to hop on a plane to Slovakia so that you can explore this hidden treasure of a city before it’s overtaken by masses of tourists. Spend a sunny afternoon at the Lemontree and gaze at the graceful scenery in front of you. You’ll be glad you did.