Norbert Schök, who helms Budapest’s newly opened 300-whiskeys-strong Good Spirit Bar, is stoked about his upcoming trip to Beirut. He just returned from a South African adventure, and after the Middle Eastern jaunt, there’s Venezuela to look forward to. Like many internationally savvy barkeeps of the era, Schök balances stock levels and drink slinging with a full slate of cocktail competitions and bar immersions around the globe. “It’s one of the most amazing things that comes with the job,” he says.
Wanderlust has always gripped the Budapest native, who lived in Madrid and led Tanqueray master classes for bartenders around Spain. Buoyed by a stint at TGI Friday’s, he also headed to Dublin for a spell, where he was a repeat flair champion. “I was interested in psychedelic trance parties, and just for fun, we started juggling,” he says. A friend living in Ireland took note of Schök’s affability and knack for hand-eye coordination. “You could be the Tom Cruise of Cocktail in Dublin,” he says joking. Off Schök went.
His affinity for dramatics kicked in at a young age, when at age seven he announced he wanted to be a clown. Less than thrilled about these percolating circus-performing desires, his family enrolled him in an acting class instead. Soon, Schök was part of the National Theatre in Budapest, appearing in the likes of Les Misérables and as a regular on a popular children’s television show. A keen interest in psychology, a subject any astute bartender should have knowledge of, was fostered as a kindergarten teacher, while four years hawking vibrators and videos at a sex shop sharpened Schök’s social skills.
Although he prided himself with showmanship, making quality drinks was as much a priority to him as presentation. Back in Budapest, he worked at a number of disparate bars, including the American-steakhouse-inspired KNRDY and most recently Kollázs, the swish brasserie inside the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace. “It was a great place to work, and if I wasn’t here, I would still be there,” he says.
Yet he couldn’t turn down the creativity and freedom that came intertwined with Good Spirit, a bar long dreamed about by owners Katalin Szatmári and Zsolt Szigeti. As the founders of WhiskyNet, which brings otherwise hard-to-get liquors to Hungary, the duo has been instrumental in spreading the brown-spirit gospel to Hungarians through such endeavors as the boutique WhiskyShop and the expansive, annual Whisky Show Budapest. A laid-back joint showcasing bourbon and scotch cocktails was another apt fit for the budding empire. They just couldn’t find the right person to take the reins—until they met Schök.
Budapest’s drink scene, anchored by stalwarts like the sexy Boutiq Bar, is small but growing. Good Spirit capitalizes upon this surge of interest in an unpretentious environment. “Of course, the focus is on whiskeys, but we have around 80 different rums and gins, too, so it’s a spot to drink whatever you feel like,” says Schök. “The most important thing is that we wanted a casual bar, where there are no expectations and you don’t worry about how you are dressed. You can come anytime and feel comfortable.”
Loyalists of WhiskyShop were the first to pull up reddish brown bar stools, eager to taste their way through different single malts, including circa-1980 rarities. Locals followed. Clubby but relaxed, Good Spirit stars a towering, illuminated back bar that melds with the rustic wood and brick that are holdovers from when the space was home to a restaurant. Over refined bar snacks like spring rolls with pineapple carpaccio, patrons sample whiskey concoctions made by Schök and his gracious staff such as the Peaty Woman (Big Peat whisky fast-infused with hibiscus flower, lemon juice, honey water, egg white and flamed Chartreuse spray), the Fig in Japan (Nikka whisky, fig syrup, sherry vinegar and espresso-tobacco-bacon bitters) and the tropical Son of a Beach (Arran 10-year-old scotch, vanilla and pineapple).
“You don’t only have to drink whiskey neat or with ice. It also makes for amazing cocktails,” says Schök. “We are trying to open people’s eyes to this.” The larger, revamped WhiskyShop adjacent to Good Spirit also invites exploring. Teeming with 1,200 bottles, it’s just the place for curious Budapest denizens to augment their burgeoning whiskey know-how.