Schnaps: Austria’s Winter Cocktail of Choice

Tonight on Chug, Zane visits Austria for a first-hand encounter with cold-weather concoctions, local beers, and a unique way to down freshly made wine in frosty cold mugs. Since most of the Northern Hemisphere is hunkering down for winter right this very moment, Zane’s encounter with Austria’s choice winter tipple, Schnaps, proves relevant for those in need of staving off Jack Frost.

What is Schnaps? 

In a country where the cocktail scene is not embraced with pink Cosmos, Manhattans, and dirty martinis like they are in the States, Schnaps remains Austria’s answer to hard liquor.

Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling
Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling

The word itself is derived from the Germanic languages and literally means, “swallow.” Genuine Schnaps resembles nothing of the cordial-like American version, spelled with two “p”s (Schnapps), in flavor or in customary drinking style. Schnaps is meant for sipping, not chugging, and the flavors are not masked by loads of sweetness as found in peppermint, peach, or cinnamon Schnapps—common suspects in the States. Similar to various eaux-de-vie, like France’s calvados (made from apples) and Eastern Europe’s slivovitz (made from plums), Schnaps is a distilled fruit brandy varying from 64-85 proof. Zane breathes fire after downing one of these puppies, and rightfully so. Schnaps puts hair on your chest and warms your belly—could be the reason locals herald it in Alpine mountain towns. Overall, Schnaps is enjoyed by many Austrian adults in a controlled setting, and is not to be confused with the debased American version mostly consumed by youth in a hazing-like, shot slinging frenzy.

History of Schnaps

Ancient Romans brought the art of fruit cultivation to the region of Austria. Fruit orchards thrived in the colder, Alpine states where grape vines could not grow. Ample sunshine, coupled with cold weather, makes for fruits high in acidity and aromas, but not necessarily fruit with sugary sweetness, as compared to a ripened peach from Georgia or South Carolina in the U.S. Most berries and fruit from the Alpine heights are not delicious in their natural, non-distilled state. History shows potable water led to illness, due to bacteria and unsanitary handling, and that people recognized medicinal qualities in spirits. Thus, fruits were often converted to alcohol.

Distillation technology became widespread in Austria in the 18th century with the invention of the copper pot still. During the harvest season, a communal mobile still would be transported by horse and cart among the households. The practice of Schnaps crafting was even endorsed by Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa, the Holy Roman Empress and ruler of the Austria-Hungarian empire during the 1700s. The production of fruit brandies proved to be perfect for taxing and revenue generating for the government.

Types of Schnaps

Austrians drink a myriad of Schnaps flavors such as apricot, Williams pear, plum, cherry, raspberry, and wild cherry. Zane even sampled an Enzian Schnaps, known in English as Gentian spirit, which is made in the Alpine regions from the roots of gentian flowers. Two of Austria’s most famous producers of Schnaps are Hans Reisetbauer and Alois Goelles, who grow their own fruit versus purchasing it from countries abroad. They use more than 80 percent natural and organic fruits.

How to Serve Schnaps

Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling
Photograph by Inzane Entertainment/ Melissa Schilling

Traditionally, as soon as Austrians completed the Schnaps production process, the drink was bottled immediately. Families kept the bottles on hand to readily serve visiting guests or enjoy after a meal. Schnaps should be served in an eau de vie or grappa glass (Italians form of brandy), which are tulip-shaped glasses. A sherry glass serves Schnaps drinkers well, too. San Diego may possibly possess the only Schnaps bar in the US. A former LA restaurant, Bier Beisl, did frequently showcase food pairings with Schnaps, but the restaurant is now closed and slated to re-open in a new location. With such a disparity of Schnaps representation in the States, the best way to experience how the warming elixir passes ripe fruit tastes and aromas over your tongue is to buy a ticket to Austria. While you’re there, you can add a kick of caffeine at a genuine Viennese café.

ProTip: For the swanky, dare to pair a small glass of fruit flavored eau de vie with a pan-seared pork loin marinated in juniper, rosemary, and thyme served with roasted pear and braised red cabbage. With a red-fruit based Schnaps, like raspberry, finish the meal with a chocolate torte. Now that calls for a toast! Prost! As the Austrians would say it.

 

Don’t miss Chug: Vienna tonight at 7:30/6:30c!