Earlier this year I walked out of a bank in Vienna clutching about €89 in small bills. Before rocking up in Austria I had found a crumpled, cream-coloured traveller’s cheque lodged in the sleeve of a transparent folder, a vestige from an earlier trip. It could only be cashed at certain banks, under certain conditions, making this blunt financial instrument very much a time traveller’s cheque.
So as soon as I got some liquidity going I set forth on some liquid adventures. Here is the highlights reel from that quasi-bender involving some regular culture and plenty of viticulture:
The adventure began, as all 21st-century adventures must, in Neubau, the hipster district of Vienna, on the terrace of Wirr, a trendy bar and restaurant. The menu looked like a traffic jam of spritzers (citrusy, hibiscus, wildberry, and so on), each one making eyes at me. Some accounts claim that spritzer was invented in the late 19th century in Austria. A tall, cold drink with a white wine base, a spritzer is basically an enactment of summer in your mouth. I settled for the blueberry.
It arrived in a wine glass, bubbling at a low velocity with the sweetness of a good cocktail and the sparkle of soda. As soon as I tasted it, I knew it would not be my last spritzer that week. (It would also not be my last episode of daytime drinking that week, but as my grandmother wisely pointed out, it’s kosher, the Europeans do it.)
So much for alcohol. But everyone knows that Vienna lives in its coffee houses. In Gumpendorfer Straße at Sperl, one of the city’s oldest such establishments, the high-ceilinged, partially draped long windows and perfunctory red-and-white sofa pattern confidently assures patrons of its long history. I took a seat beside a chipped wooden table, and waited patiently for a waitress to notice me. (Did they think I was just here to drink in historic atmosphere? Okay, a little bit.)
One finally did, and I asked for a Flaker—a dark mocha with rum. It seemed like a good intermediate way to segue out of alcohol and into coffee. Once again, it fell very much in the tradition of “awesome with a top note of bitter.” I began to sense a pattern.
When it is approaching summer, the merry season of sugary sodas, spiffy spritzers and strawberries (Erdbeere in German), there are few honourable alternatives to the cocktail. In Roßauer Lände, a canal-facing part of town where outdoor bars had positioned themselves for the season, there was no excuse to keep walking past them. Less than 50 metres down the stretch, my sister and I stopped and sat down at Mortons Bar and Grill. An arresting picture of an Erdbeerbowle (strawberry punch) on a spring day was a powerful come hither sign. We went thither and settled. The picture was pointed to, the drink ordered.
The translucent red liquid—a combination of white wine, strawberry syrup, vodka, chunks of strawberry and raspberry—was a fine iteration of a fine fruit. Act III drew to a close.
The sophomore spritzer outing unfolded in the pedestrian-only street near Stephansplatz, the beating heart of the capital. Had all of Vienna been gathered up and emptied out in this square? That was a question for another time. For now, the question was, which place to take my custom to.
After surveying the talent on the floor I settled for a small outdoor table at Graben 30, a restaurant smack in the centre of the action. There I had what everyone around me seemed to be having—drinks the colour of a tropical sunset. They turned out to be aperol spritzes, invented in Italy and evidently transplanted successfully here. “What’s aperol?” I asked the waiter. “Umm, it’s aperol,” he helpfully explained. The drink: white wine with a fleshy hunk of lime and an orange-based aperitif. The verdict: awesome with a top note of bitter. The spritzer canon had been taken care of.
In Vienna’s 19th district where the city gives way to the hills and vineyards, wine is a passion project and a way of life. The area has a bunch of heurigers—local taverns that seasonally serve wine brewed from the nearby vineyards and made from the last harvest.
Close to Grinzing, one tavern was exultant in its decor. “Grinzing saves the world,” it proclaimed at the entrance alongside pictures of Vladimir Putin, the pope and Donald Trump. It was not immediately clear if these were its chief backers.
We chose the Weinbau Jutta Ambrositsch slightly further up the hill. At the outdoor garden seating in the heuriger, trees shaded wooden tables and dogs lounged lazily by their wine-drinking humans. Everything was in German and there were no endorsements either, which was comforting from the point of view of authenticity, less so from the point of view of comprehensibility.
Since I am a well-established philistine, I asked for “something like a Riesling” from the indoor wood panelled counter, and was offered the Riesling Rosengartel 2015. Jutta Ambrositsch, whose name was prominently mentioned everywhere, was the winemaker and everything on the menu bore her stamp. She watched us struggling to divine the non-meat items on the menu and offered a vegetarian smorgasbord. This included a boiled egg, two types of cream cheese, one solid cheese, one radish salad, pickled gherkins and a pickled cucumber. In short, a devastating acid attack masquerading as lunch.
Later Ambrositsch’s husband explained that theirs was a Buschenschank, a version of the heuriger that served cold foods.
The Ottakringer Radler is a standard-issue bottled beer that can be had anywhere. It comes in a few different flavours and has a faintly sweet twang that is perfect for a hot day. Or pretty much every kind of day, really. I had more than a few that week. But the first one was at Demel, a storied institution in the middle of the city with an upper floor, a bustling army of serving staff and a smug sense of its own place in the world.
My next Radler was in a plastic cup at an outdoor concert where former Eurovision winner Conchita was performing. Moral of the story: there is no bad time or place for a mouthful of Austria’s finest, or at least, Austria’s most ubiquitous. Couldn’t see much or hear much that night, but tasted plenty fine Radler.
Technically, the Spargelcremesuppe isn’t a drink drink, but it would be a travesty to compile a liquid list without a mention of asparagus soup. Asparagus—raw, cooked and as soup—is found on menus across the region and both Germans and Austrians seem to be mad for it when it’s available in the slim window of the year during spring. The natives call it spargelzeit—official translation “asparagus time,” actual translation, crazy time. I had a bracing broth at a small tavern not far from the 19th district. The waiters didn’t speak English and the decor seems to have achieved peak Austria with its antler-bedecked walls and rustic wooden interiors. Lunch was white wine and white asparagus. Who said you need main courses?