Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Czech liquor ban spares beloved home-grown brandy

BREZNICE, Czech Republic — It's a cherished countryside tradition dating back to the 13th century. And, in a hard-drinking nation reeling from a deadly wave of alcohol poisoning, it's now the only source of legal liquor.

Early in the morning, locals bring fermented homegrown fruit to makeshift distilleries in kitchens, back yards and garages; by sunset they walk away with vats of slivovitz, a potent plum brandy that many swear by.

Initially, Czechs thought these small brewing outlets — palenice in Czech — were included in a nationwide ban that was recently imposed on spirits exceeding 20 percent in alcohol content. But authorities made it clear that wasn't the case, citing the strict guidelines these outlets adhere to as a matter of pride and that what they produce is for personal consumption, not resale.

What might seem a risky leap of faith came as a huge relief to Czechs who swear by their slivovitz.

"I was getting afraid that they would even ban this. That would've been a tragedy. It would cause a rebellion in the villages," said 69-year-old Oldrich Chmela, one of a dozen people watching all day this week inside Stanislava Chalupova's one-room distillery in eastern Czech Republic.

"It's where alchemy happens," he said.

At least 23 people have died in just over a week from a very different, sinister form of alchemy.

Authorities say a thriving black market in the country's northeastern region is to blame for lacing vodka and rum with methanol to stretch volume and increase profit margins. More than two dozen people have been arrested, and police have seized thousands of liters of tainted and suspicious alcohol.

Exports from the country have been banned, and Poles and Slovaks were among the victims having drunk the bootleg booze that had crossed borders.

An estimated 20 percent of spirits available in bars and restaurants have been manufactured on the black market, often containing illegal substances and carrying fake labels. It has sent shock waves through a nation of alcohol lovers where beer is king but 65 million liters of spirits are consumed a year.

Overnight in mid September, all spirits above 20 percent were cleared from supermarket shelves, bars and restaurants — and boxed up until further notice. The government is reported to be considering lifting the ban once a new certificate is introduced for all spirits to show their origin. But there's no real end in sight yet for the unpopular ban, which even the president has lambasted.

Jiri Vlcek, 70, swears by home-brewed slivovitz. He has a shot every morning and was waiting this week to wheel away 35 liters. "I have enough for the whole year," he rejoiced. "It's absolutely safe. This isn't the trash you get at the stores."

He was among those waiting all day for Chalupova to complete the blending, mixing and alcohol grading. Most choose 50 percent strength.

Finally, the 79-year-old village brewing legend sipped a small sample of crystal-clear liquid from a green metal barrel and proclaimed it "delicious!"

"There's nothing to worry about; it's absolutely safe," she said of her home-distilled firewater, cursing the people who put methanol in cheap spirits to increase profit margins.

Up to 10 million liters of liquors with an alcohol content of 50 percent are made every year in 487 small home distilleries all across the country, said Vaclav Sitler, chairman of a union of distillers.

That means about a liter per capita.

The owners of these locales would seem to be in a position to cash in, but a drought combined with sudden frost in May seriously damaged the plum harvest and so supply is low.

They charge about $10 per liter distilled and are expecting a spike in customers in coming weeks. Due to the lack of plums that proper slivovitz is made of, many are bringing other fruits such as apples and apricots.

Chalupova, who has been distilling for almost four decades, said she expects to make only about a third of the slivovitz she produced last year because of the poor weather.

"People are happy for every single liter," she said.

For Czechs, slivovitz is more than a drink. It's a Czech tradition to make it when a daughter is born — and to only drink that at her wedding.

One customer this week, waiting for his spirit, described how he had slivovitz made when his son was born — but vowed not to partake until he became a grandfather.

"It's one of the most important things in life," said Vlcek.

The 5 best Spanish period dramas on Netflix

The 5 best Spanish period dramas on Netflix

If you haven't binged a Spanish period drama wondering if your hero and heroine are going to get caught by the law, a jealous spouse or somebody's scheming madre, buckle up. You're in for quite a ride.We all acknowledge the greatness of a good Britis...
Updated: 3 minutes ago
Find A Friend: Sophia the Dachshund

Find A Friend: Sophia the Dachshund

Hot dog, it’s Sophia’s turn in the spotlight. This 3-year-old female Dachshund is as sweet and snuggly as a little brown bunny. She loves to play and make new friends, and we bet she’ll look fetching in a bonnet, too. Adopt Sophia adopt fully spayed,...
Updated: 4 minutes ago
Athletes with disabilities training at MacDill for next Warrior Games

Athletes with disabilities training at MacDill for next Warrior Games

TAMPA — For Army 1st Sgt. Jarrid "Jay" Collins, the road back from a devastating injury has been long and often solitary.Collins, 41, is a Green Beret medic with the 7th Special Forces Group. After being twice injured, once when he fell off a roof an...
Updated: 6 minutes ago
Severe thunderstorm warning as Tampa Bay could experience hail, tornadoes

Severe thunderstorm warning as Tampa Bay could experience hail, tornadoes

The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for much of south Florida — including the entire Tampa Bay area — as severe storms approach the region.These storms could bring strong winds, isolated tornadoes and possibly hail once they reach...
Updated: 9 minutes ago

Another voice: Why Facebook users should beware

Ever take one of those silly personality tests on Facebook? Your friends took the quiz ("What city should you actually live in?" was a popular one), so you followed the link to a website, answered some questions and shared the result: "Paris." All in...
Updated: 10 minutes ago
FAA halts flights at Tampa International Airport due to storms

FAA halts flights at Tampa International Airport due to storms

TAMPA — Today’s storms are causing delays at Tampa International Airport."Weather across the state is causing delays in and out of Tampa International Airport," the airport tweeted this afternoon. The Federal Aviation Administration, airport official...
Updated: 11 minutes ago

Updated: 16 minutes ago
Deborah Cox talks about filling Whitney Houston’s shoes in ‘The Bodyguard,’ her LGBTQ fans and more

Deborah Cox talks about filling Whitney Houston’s shoes in ‘The Bodyguard,’ her LGBTQ fans and more

Any singer should be scared of the role. Playing Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, a musical adapted from the 1992 film starring Whitney Houston that hits Tampa's Straz Center this week, means singing more than a dozen of Houston's hits, including I Ha...
Updated: 18 minutes ago

Sponsored content: Marina Pointe opens on-site sales gallery

In a series of grand opening events beginning March 15th, BTI Partners officially launched the on-site sales gallery for Marina Pointe, a 16-story waterfront condominium in Westshore Marina District, the development company’s new walkable waterfront ...
Updated: 23 minutes ago
Column: No, driverless cars aren’t far safer than human drivers

Column: No, driverless cars aren’t far safer than human drivers

Self-driving cars have claimed their first pedestrian fatality, a woman in Tempe, Ariz., who was struck and killed by an Uber vehicle traveling in autonomous mode. Weren’t self-driving cars supposed to be safer than those piloted by fallible humans?A...
Updated: 1 hour ago