Paul Dubsky: ‘90s Prague was a Petri dish for budding entrepreneurs like myself

Paul Dubsky

Unlike the vast majority of the Westerners who moved to Prague in the “Wild East” days of the early 1990s, Paul Dubsky was still in his teens at the time. However, the Irishman wasted no time in getting in on the action and started his first business while still at school. Dubsky, who I myself have known for many years, is now preparing a new project. It’s his own brand of whiskey, linked to writer James Joyce, and will be released in limited quantities over nearly two decades. It also has a Czech connection.

You’ve been here for over 30 years. Last year was your 30th anniversary in Prague. What brought you here in the first place?

“I first came to Prague in the summer of 1990, so I guess it was seven or eight months after the Velvet Revolution.

Prague in 1993 | Photo: Infrogmation,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

“My father had a business here. He used to buy Czech textiles and sell them in Ireland, mostly selling flannelette for making flannelette pyjamas in Ireland.

“As you know yourself, we’d have single-glazed windows and the wind would come in under the front door in Irish homes.

“So wearing flannelette pyjamas was quite practical – and the best flannelette came from Czechoslovakia.

“So that was the family business.

“After the revolution it made more sense for my father to be here than to pendle back and forth, a week every month.

“So the family made the decision in 1992 that we would move to what was still then Czechoslovakia.

“And yeah, in August 1992 we moved over – and I’ve been here ever since.”

Do you have a Czech connection? Because the name Dubsky sounds so Czech.

“Yes, indeed we do.

“It was my great-great-grandfather who was Czech.

“My great-great-grandfather was married in Znojmo and he quote-unquote emigrated to Vienna.”

“Back then it was still the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the part of the country he was born in was bilingual, but he would have been speaking German as his first language.

“He was married in Znojmo and he quote-unquote emigrated to Vienna.

“And ever since then the Dubskys have been Viennese Austrians.”

So you’re one of those many names – if you visit Vienna you see names like Skrivanek and so on.

“Exactly. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but when you walk down the streets of… pick an Austrian city or town… and you look at the bells and the names on the bells of the buildings, they are Hungarian or Czech – most of them, I would say, are Slavic.

“So that’s to explain the Czech surname, Dubsky. But the family come from all over Europe.

“My mother’s mother comes from Latvia, her father was from what is today Poland; back then it was West Prussia.

“My mother was born in Germany, by accident of European history.

“My father’s father, of course, came from Vienna.

“He ended up in Ireland – the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College took him in to save him from the war.

“And my father’s mother came from Belfast.”

Is it the case that you attended the German Secondary School in Prague?

“Yes. In 1992 I joined the Deutsche Schule Prag, which was convenient, because when living in Ireland I went to the German school there: St. Killian’s.

“I started out in kindergarten, all the way through to first class – and then I arrived in Prague and was two years at Deutsche Schule Prag.”

You’re a bit younger than me. I had a great time here in Prague in my 20s. How were the ‘90s for you as a teenager?

“Remarkable. I don’t think Prague in the 1990s could be recreated ever again.

“I have so many fond memories.

“And it was a Petri dish for budding entrepreneurs like myself.

“I don’t think Prague in the 1990s could be recreated ever again.”

“It didn’t matter how young or old you were – if you had an idea and a plan, people would give you their time, they’d listen, they’d help.

“So I managed to actually run a couple of businesses while I was still at school.

“I started out my career in ladies’ underwear.”

Tell us more.

“It wasn’t a very successful career.

“I moved on to boxer shorts – and they sold like hot cakes.

“Every time they’d fly to Ireland I had my mother and father come back with duffle bags filled with boxer shorts from Dunnes Stores.

“And I’d take them to the various different skateboarding shops around Prague – and then eventually I went to Brno and Plzeň as well.

“And then somebody else launched a business on the back of me proving there was a market: Styx – and they’re still in business today, I understand.

“So yeah, that’s what launched my career.”

I think when we first met, which I guess would have been late ‘90s or early 2000s, you were in beer distribution. Is that correct?

“Yes, my father got the agency for Murphy’s Irish stout in 1995 and I decided to resign my services prematurely from high school.

“I left high schol, I went to work and I became the brand manager of Murphy’s.”

“I left, I went to work and I became the brand manager of Murphy’s.

“Then in January 1997 I got the Heineken agency, followed on with the Magner’s Irish cider, or Bulmer’s as we call it back home.

“I had Carlsberg, Kopparberg.”

And you also had the Slovak beer, Zlatý Bažant, I recall.

“Yes, we had Zlatý Bažant as well. That was a very interesting relationship.

“Because Zlatý Bažant was a brand owned by Heineken – they had a company, Heineken Slovensko – and Heineken Slovensko bought Heineken from me.  And I of course bought it from the Netherlands.

“They weren’t selling as much Heineken as we were in the Czech Republic and they couldn’t bring it in by the container loads, so we supplied them with small volumes.

“There was a disco in Prague called Karlovy lázně, down by the Charles Bridge, and that disco sold more Heineken than the whole of the Slovak Republic, even though Heineken were doing the selling in Slovakia – and they had more than 50 percent market share.”

Now you’ve got a new business: Ulysses Whiskey. What’s that all about?

“I suppose I’ve been in the drinks business on and off for 20 years.

“And during those 20 years I learnt that if you don’t own your own brand, you don’t control your destiny.

“So for a long time I’d been thinking about launching my own brand.

“I just didn’t know what. I didn’t know if it’d be a beer or a cider or a gin.

“And eventually, by accident, I was in the right place at the right time and a light bulb went off.

“I was in Sweeney’s Pharmacy at the back gate of Trinity College, where a group of Joyceans run Sweeney’s Pharmacy.

“It was a remarkable experience, when I was in there talking to P.J. Murphy, who runs the place.

“I was so impressed that it just got the wheels turning and I thought to myself, I should be launching a whiskey – and I should call it Ulysses.

“We’re launching 18 whiskeys over the course of 18 years, named for the 18 episodes of James Joyce’s Ulysses.”

“That was about 10 years ago and for the last 10 years I’ve been thinking about, OK, how am I actually going to do this?

“Eventually I came up with a formula that I think is going to be a hell of a lot of fun, fun for me to do, but also fun for a whole community to get behind.

“In short, we’re launching 18 whiskeys over the course of 18 years, named for the 18 episodes of James Joyce’s Ulysses.”

You’re also bringing out a Czech one, in 2030, if I’m right, on June 16, as every year, on Bloomsday. Who’s going to be making the Czech Ulysses whiskey?

“We will be releasing that information over the next couple of weeks, months and years.

“We’re working with different distillers in various different countries.

“Obviously in Ireland, but Joyce was a true European.

“Of course he was born in Ireland, but he moved to Trieste, which back then was still the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“He lived there for a number of years with his wife and they had some kids.

“Then they moved to Zurich, they lived in Locarno for a while, they lived in Paris and then back to Zurich, which is actually where he’s buried.

“The book Ulysses has been translated into more than 30 languages and I thought it would be fun to basically follow in the footsteps of Joyce.

“The first language Ulysses was translated into was German, the second French, the third Czech.”

“And I really only have one question for what I consider, what I’m putting into the project, and basically it’s very simple: Would Joyce have done it?

“What that translates into is, How far can I push the envelope? How creative can I make this project, where almost everything that we’re doing flies in the face of the norm?

“And I think Joyce would have loved it.

“So every whiskey is coming from a different distiller. One year it will be a distiller in Ireland, another year Swiss whiskey, another year Italian whiskey, because of course he lived in Switzerland and Italy.

“Another year it’ll be a French whiskey.

“But we’re also going as far away as Japan, the US, India – and of course you mentioned the Czech whiskey.

“The first language it was translated into was German, the second French, the third Czech.

“On the centenaries of those translations, it’ll be a Germany whisky, a French whiskey and then a Czech whiskey.”

You say each edition is itself a work of art. These bottles are going to cost EUR 1,000 a pop – do you expect people will collect them or consume them?

“Oh, I hope a bit of both.

“EUR 1,000 is what the investment is for our customers – we want to think of them as patrons.

“I see this as an international, collaborative art project, where the distillers are the brass band, I’m the conductor up at the front and we’re all playing to Joyce’s music.

“We’re starting off with 5,000 bottles, in year one; this is the first year of release, on June 16, which of course is Bloomsday – the whole book takes place on June 16.

“Then there’s going to be 250 bottles less every year, through to the year 2040, where I suppose it should be 750 bottles, mathematically.

“We’re reducing that. We’re going down to 730 bottles, because that’s how many pages there were in the book when it was first published, in 1922 in Paris.

“So you’re not paying EUR 1,000 for a bottle of whiskey.

“The EUR 1,000 is for this community, collaborative, art project.

“And if we succeed in creating something remarkable – by which I mean other are remarking on it – then we have created art.

“And that has value.”

What’s fascinating to me is your faith in the future, that you’re planning to start something now and keep doing it to the year 2040. What kind of a leap of faith does that involve?

“So I suppose I could go back to my surname, Dubsky.

“‘Dub’ is Czech for oak – and you can’t make whiskey without oak; the casks are made of oak.

“And oaks grow slowly, but they grow strong.

“I don’t want to sound like some pathetic marketeer when I say that: I’m quite serious about this oak and growing strong.

“My wife and I have three amazing children and it’s been the joy of my life to watch them grow.

“Our son just turned 18. We have a daughter who’s turning 17 this year and another daughter who’s 13.

“I look at them and I think of the joy that I’ve had watching them grow up – and I expect to get a similar kind of buzz from this 18-year-project.

“And I want to share it, I want to share it with everybody else. And I mean that sincerely too.

“We will be inviting our patrons to come, on Bloomsday, to France, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, America.

“When we’re launching those whiskeys in those countries, come with me to the distilleries.

“Let’s celebrate Bloomsday in style. Let’s do it together. It’s an 18-year journey.”