Warm Up

What to Drink When it’s Cold? The Glory of Austrian Schnaps

Reach for a bottle of schnaps to ward off the bitter cold blanketing America right now. Jordan Salcito on the history and production of Austria’s favorite winter tipple.

01.25.14 10:45 AM ET

All across the Northern and Eastern parts of the United States people are huddled inside as temperatures drop and toes freeze. Forget furs, cashmere, even fires—the best way to beat the cold? Schnaps. Few coping mechanisms are more immediately warming than a glass of good schnaps, an excellent and underappreciated beverage for the current climate. 

In Austria, schnaps is a colloquial term that historically references distilled fruit brandy. It refers to what Americans call eau-de-vie, though Austrians have been tinkering with and perfecting the drink for centuries. In America we’ve unfortunately come to associate it with the cinnamon or peppermint firewater generally palatable only to those who haven’t yet turned twenty-one. (That’s schnapps, with two “p”s by the way.) 

The world can thank late Empress Maria Theresa (Marie Antoinette’s mother and the sole female ruler of the Hapsburg Empire) for legalizing this simultaneously fiery and delicate libation. During her reign in the eighteenth-century, she introduced a grant permitting any household to make up to two hundred liters of distilled spirits annually.  The Empress added a special clause for land-owning farmers, who were allowed to distill up to three hundred liters. Anyone who grew his or her own fruit or collected it wild could turn it into booze. Austrians began to make alcohol out of whatever happened to be around. 

This allowance worked for the state (Maria Theresa taxed their production). In addition to increasing government revenue, her grant legalized a tradition that would have likely happened regardless, clandestinely, in basements and backyards. In legalizing distillation, she fostered experimentation, a free market that rewarded quality, and a widespread tradition that encouraged farmers to make use of berries and fruit that would have otherwise gone to waste.   

I spoke with Katia and Gerold Schneider, proprietors of the renowned Almhof Schneider Hotel in Lech, Austria, as well as their sommelier of twelve years, Josef Neulinger, about schnaps. Their guesthouse is particularly lauded for its restaurant and beverage program. Additionally, the hotel is only open from December through Easter – a period of time when the weather in Lech is frightfully cold. 

Gerold’s family has lived in Lech since 1451, and he is clued-in to regional traditions.  He pointed out that the area, and other nearby alpine areas (notably Tyrol), had historically been too cold to successfully cultivate grape vines. He also noted that because of the ample sunshine combined with cool temperatures, fruits ripen and develop aromatics without much sugar (that would convert into flabby schnaps with disparate aromas). 

During our conversation, Gerold mentioned that many of the wild fruits and berries are simply not delicious in their raw, or even non-distilled forms. Subirer, for example, is a small bitter pear that grows in the Alps, near Lech. Its name roughly translates to “pig pear,” referencing the only animals contented to eat it. In schnaps, however, Subirer aromas are transformed into those of a caramelized pear tart, buttery, baked, and entirely pleasant. 

Rowanberries are another example of an unremarkable local ingredient heightened and transformed through distillation. They also highlight of the level of effort required to produce a bottle of artisanal schnaps. (One hundred kilograms of rowanberries produce only one liter and a half of distilled liquor.) These tiny berries only grow in cool climates.  Austrian distillers, at some point, realized they taste more delicious after the first frost, at which point their bitter flavors start to transform into what tastes like a combination of tart cherries, fresh almonds, and marzipan. (So every bottle of rowanberry schnaps you see began with thousands of hand-harvest, just-frosted rowanberries.) 

Even in Austria, the term schnaps has begun to lose esteem. Quality-minded producers call their beverage “qualitsbrand” if it is made only from distilled fruit. Schnaps is a colloquial term and fails to capture the artisanal quality inherent in some of these distilled fruit brandies.   

The best producers include Gunter Rochelt, Hans Reisetbauer, Albert Büchele 
Walter Trausner and Johann Zieser, are hard to find in America. 

Gunter Rochelt’s brandies are not currently imported to the United States, but they’re available in Austria and occasionally other European countries in a stunning green glass “pincer” bottle, ribbed, and seemingly pinched in the center. Rochelt passed away in 2009, but his family continues production according to his standards. 

During my conversation with Gerold and Katia, I asked if there were any other schnaps-related traditions I should know about. 

“I have a friend whose grandmother is 100-years-old, and she has a shot of schnaps every morning for breakfast.”    

Keep that in mind. There may be other benefits to schaps besides instant fiery warmth and a taste of Austria.