On the day before a massive culinary event unfolds in Budapest, Zoltán Nagy stands in Boutiq’, the bar he co-founded in 2008, helping his staff meticulously pour refreshingly bitter aperitifs into 1,000 glass bottles that will be distributed during the festivities.
Such precision has long been a hallmark of Nagy’s approach to cocktails. Boutiq’, where tables are tended to by bartenders instead of wait staff and a year-long apprenticeship is a requirement for anyone craving to get behind the stick, is serious about turning out quality drinks. Yet libations like the Lab Master Flash, a Beefeater 24 Gin & Tonic amped by peach, celery and Peychaud’s bitters that’s served in a beaker, attests to Boutiq’s equally robust playful side.
Lab Master Flash
When Nagy opened the bar, it was unlike any other in Budapest. “We had nothing,” he says. “There was Oscar, Negro and Martinez, most of which were influenced by Charles Schumann, focused on rigid German-style drinks without room for experimentation.” Nagy’s dream was to have his own establishment, one that transcended the typical Long Island Iced Teas and Piña Coladas guests clamored for while showcasing products that were extremely challenging to source in Hungary.
This enthusiasm for the unconventional was undoubtedly fostered during the five years he spent living in London, spawned by the desire “to make a lot of money and to improve my English,” he says. Here he was drawn to the bar world, working at places like Soho House, Café Boheme and Taman Gang, where he was particularly transformed “by the level of knowledge and drink-making.”
Upon moving back to Budapest, he embarked on a failed clothing shop enterprise and honed his bartending skills in the catering business. Then he saw the space that would become Boutiq’ and instantly fell in love with it because it reminded him of the London icon Lab Bar. It opened as Mini Bar, but when another joint debuted with the same name, to alleviate confusion, he changed it to Boutiq’, a nod to boutique hotels that conjure intimate accommodations and a devotion to detail.
“We had to convince guests that what we did was better than what they were used to,” says Nagy. “At first, they would ask why there was no Mojito on the menu. We made Mojitos, but we didn’t list them because if we did that’s what everyone would order. It took a lot of passionate customer service and education, “says Nagy of Boutiq’s growth.
Now, the bilevel crimson-hued bar is perpetually filled with imbibers trying Bombay Nights, a lassi-like concoction made with Bombay Sapphire gin, mango masala and yogurt, or the stress ball-accompanied Positive Drinking, a mix of Unicum Szilva, Earl Grey tea and a pinch of salt, sipped out of a teacup. Downstairs, the vibe is “sexier and more progressive, completely different from the reputation of Budapest’s damp and poorly lit cellar clubs of the nineties,” says Nagy. There’s fresh produce on display in this speakeasy-like laboratory, and creations including the Chimichanga, melding mezcal with lemonade and Tabasco, are ordered off a different list.
The restless Nagy is now eager to unveil the soon-to-open Bitter Mendez, a funkier sister bar in Vienna with lively Hispanic-inspired touches, along with a focus on stellar service similar to Boutiq’. “I don’t think of my bars as profit-based businesses but schools that teach bartenders lessons in psychology and art, too,” he says. “Learning how to make a drink is only part of the process.”