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Exploring Central Europe, One Cocktail At A Time

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While travelling, I'm always looking to be inspired, get re-energized and experience new things -- this is especially true when I'm on the hunt for the next cocktail trend I can bring home. On a recent trip to Central Europe, I was able to merge my love of mixology with ingredients from around the world.

Three cities that really stood out for me are Prague, Budapest and Warsaw. Each offered a distinct take on the intersection between culture, cocktails and nightlife -- and each served a different kind of traveller. Below is a mini-guide to the area, with stops at some of my favourite bars as well as a cocktail recipe inspired by each destination -- so you can savour your trip even once you're back.

For the Off-the-Beaten-Path Traveller

Throw away your guidebooks -- you won't need one if you're looking for an authentic drinking experience in Prague. The majority of the city's bars seem to pay homage to the Czech Republic's political break from Communism towards a more Western style of mixology. One of my favourite watering holes, Bukowski's, echoes this shift.

What really stands out in this cozy spot is the impressive list of cocktails and local beers, and, most importantly, the talented bar staff. The owner, a Canadian expat from Vancouver, isn't interested in having his place become just another pub-crawl destination, so you won't find it listed in most travel books. Enjoy sipping in peace! Here's my spin on a drink inspired by the Czech capital:

2 oz Becherovka
4oz tonic water
2 dashes grapefruit bitters
lemon zest

For the Nightlife-Loving Traveller

Budapest is one of Hungary's most popular cities for nightlife due to its romkocsma, or "ruin" pubs. Over the years, these cultural and social drinking hubs have become hot spots for tourists, too. With their bare-bones aesthetic and unique atmosphere, ruin pubs are used to showcase art films and live music from around the world, in addition to serving a great cocktail.

One of my favourite romkocsma is Szimpla Kert, which is known for attracting large crowds and an international following. The wild décor is matched only by the extensive drinks menu, including artisanal beers, wines and spritzers. Try my ode to a Budapest tipple:

1oz Flor de Cana
½ oz Zwack Unicum
1oz simple syrup

For the No-Frills Traveller

The zakaska bars are a nostalgic nod to the city's Communist-era vodka bars -- and a draw for visitors to Warsaw. Instead of focusing on the glamour of cocktail outposts with long drinks lists, these bars attract people looking for a truly authentic experience, offering a single brand of alcohol and beer.

My favourite is Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa, a Communist-themed bar known for its old school vibe. The bartender serves one type of Polish vodka -- respect! The eclectic vibe puts the focus on eating and drinking simply -- the true and traditional expression of a dive bar. Here's my Warsaw-inspired Mule:

1.5oz Bison Grass Vodka
4oz Ginger Beer
3oz fresh lime
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Until the end of September, you can catch summer seasonal non-stop flights from Toronto to Prague, Budapest and Warsaw with Air Canada Rouge. For more information, visit www.aircanada.com.

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