Agent Oscar’s cocktails spoil the most demanding taste buds with updated American classics

It’s somewhat ironic that the real birth of the cocktail coincides with the prohibition era in the United States: mixed, sweet drinks can be consumed faster in case of police raids, and adding sugar and other flavors helped mask the poor quality of illegal (and often poisonously inferior) hooch. But necessity is the mother of invention, and amazing, flavorful concoctions were born, spreading the shaken-or-stirred gospel long after booze was legalized again in 1933.

In a small hole-in-the-wall just on Mariahilfer Strasse, the recently opened bar Agent Oscar seeks to replicate those heady days of sipping highballs, smoking cigarettes and listening to jazz. Named after Oscar Wallace, the Treasury Department accountant who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion in The Untouchables, Oscar manages the balancing act between cozy and fashionable – with exposed brick walls and cut glass chandeliers, and muted lighting supplemented by candlelight. Underneath a high mirror over the bar – angled to keep watch for the Feds – row after row of neatly placed bottles gleam, some of them in their own wood cases.

With a selection of over 250 different cocktails and 300 spirits, our man in Vienna boasts one of the city’s most versatile selections, offering indulgence with a variety of retouched modern classics, often named after cultural icons. The owner’s personal recommendation, The Third Man, is a modified Old Fashioned: Bourbon whiskey and Southern Comfort poured over a mashed orange and a teaspoon of sugar, the sharp aroma of bitters stands out.

Modern Speakeasy

Thirsty for more, your intrepid reporter next tried a New Orleans Julep, a stronger version of the Deep South’s iconic Mint Julep with a generous helping of fresh mint leaves and vanilla. Once the ice cubes melted a bit and softened the blow of the bourbon, it became exactly the refreshing drink I craved.

But the bar’s signature drink is the Himalaya, vodka and triple sec with Timut pepper, egg white and raspberries. While you sample, tumblers of ice water and bowls of chili popcorn keep coming.

Behind the counter, owner and bartender Frank Hassfurther does his best to bring back the excitement and edge of the speakeasy, echoing the forbidden flavors of early American cocktails. Achieving this excitement today requires quality ingredients and a high level of skill, but based on this visit, Hassfurther clearly has both: His precision, focus and dedication are admirable, his passion contagious. Meticulous and methodical, he slices fruit, mixes liquor and lovingly decorates his concoctions. It’s bar as theater, and a very good show.

As he finishes making a drink, Hassfurther turns to his guests, 30 years of experience unfolding in his effortless rapport with patrons. But try as you might, the real recipes are offlimits. His index finger in front of his mouth, he whispers, “Shhhhhh – top secret!” In a speakeasy, the walls have ears!

It’s late. Leaning on the counter, smoking an electric cigarette, Hassfurther grins: “I close the bar when I want to.” Once they stayed open until 10:30 the next day. “The band was playing, everyone was enjoying themselves…” At Agent Oscar, it’s the mood and the music that set the last call.