Who's Afraid of a Little Schnapps?

Eau de vie means "water of life," but will it ever take off in this lifetime?

Be sure to listen to my converation with Alex Rainer of Rochelt, the iconic schnapps producer from the Austrian Alps.

Last year, just before quarantine, I read a New York Times article that asked, “Could you Be an Anti-Influencer?” Apparently, based on a study purchasing patterns at a national convenience store chain, some consumers are drawn over and over to unpopular products — Crystal Pepsi, Watermelon Oreos, Frito-Lay Lemonade, and Cheetos Lip Balm were given as examples.

“We looked in the data and saw there were some customers who were really good at picking out failures,” said one of the study’s authors, economist Catherine Tucker of MIT. Researchers called these people “harbingers of failure.” Further, they found that these harbingers cluster in similar ZIP codes (“water seeking its own level”) and even regularly donated money to political candidates who ended up losing their races. Unsurprisingly, property values in ZIP codes with lots of harbingers of failure consistently under perform the broader real-estate market.

“I think what we’re picking up on is that there are just some people who, for whatever reason, have consistently non-majority tastes,” said Tucker. “They like that odd house. That political candidate everyone else finds off-putting. They like Watermelon Oreos.”

After reading that on the Sunday morning before the whole world changed, I suddenly felt seen, as if my entire life was being explained to me. Maybe I am on a completely different wavelength than other consumers. I’ve spent year of my extolling the virtues of obscure wines and spirits: Swiss wines, Nordic aquavit, Calvados, funky, hard-to-find ciders, — if you don’t know it or can’t pronounce it, I’m all over it.

Case in point: I love the clear fruit brandies called eaux de vie by French speakers or schnapps by German speakers. These are unaged spirits made from cherries (kirsch), plums (slivovitz), pears (Poire Williams), or any other fruits — apricots, quince, elderberries — or pretty much anything that grows: carrots, pine buds from Douglas fir trees, whatever. There’s a whole wild world of schnapps. Yet among all the things I champion, these are the toughest sell to my friends and colleagues.

Part of the reason, I think is that — for good reason — Americans fear clear 80-proof spirits served in tiny glasses. They look like they will burn. If they are well-made, they absolutely do not.

Another reason for their lack of popularity is that the word schnapps has taken on a very bad association with things like Rumple Minze, Goldschläger, and Peachtree “schnapps” — especially bad among people of my generation who drank them as shots or in Fuzzy Navels in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, all of these awful spirits are lower-proof liqueurs and not schnapps at all. Schnapps has no added sugar.

Good eau de vie is a complex, dry, delicate spirit, and perhaps that’s what makes it hard to understand for someone who loves, say, bourbon. An eau de vie should be the very essence of the ripe fruit used to distill it — nothing else. Think of it as a snapshot of the fruit harvest. It’s a spirit sold in small bottles that you nip at over time, a perfect way to end a meal or an evening.

We’ll be talking about fruit brandies on Monday’s podcast, but here is a preview of my favorites, with links on where to order them — because, trust me, they will hard to find in your local store.

I also have include five cocktail recipes below. You probably don’t want to use your super, top-end, expensive eaux de vie in these recipes, but any of the well-priced domestic fruit brandies will work great in these drinks.


Everyday Fruit Brandy Recommendations

Unless noted, all prices below are for 375 ml (half bottles).

PEAR

Known as Poire Williams in France, pear brandies are probably the eau de vie that’s easiest to find in your local store. There are a number of very good — and good-value — domestic versions available.

Clear Creek (Oregon) $25

Amazing value for such a beautiful spirit, the essence of pear. One of the great standard brandies of the world.

Rootstock (New York) $21

From a family farm in New York’s Apple Country. This one rests in oak for 3 months, and is mellower than most. Perhaps a good place to start for a newbie who loves their woody spirits.

Neversink (New York) $55

Lovely aromatics and flavor from this excellcent craft producer of apple spirits.

PLUM

The most famous plum brandy is slivovitz, which is made all over Eastern Europe. A lot of that is homemade moonshine-quality — I still get night sweats from a backyard Serbian version I was given once — but the best of it is exquisite. In fact, plum brandy is probably the category of eau de vie that I drink the most at home. These two domestic version made with Italian blue plums are excellent and great value.

Rootstock (New York) $21

Beautiful spirit, rich plum flavor, finishing dry with great structure, incredible value. One of my favorite finds of the past year!

Clear Creek (Oregon) $28

Softer and supple for a plum brandy, a lovely delicate spirit.

CHERRY

My favorite schnapps is cherry brandy, what German speakers call kirsch or kirschwasser. The best comes from Germany and Austria, and the best are dry, with a hint of cherry pit, which brings complexity.

Schladerer Kirschwasser (Germany) $49 for 750 ml

One of my all-time, everyday favorites. Over 160 years ago, Sixtus Schladerer began making fruit brandies for guests at his restaurant. Little has changed. An excellent value for what you get.

Clear Creek Cherry Brandy (Oregon) $27

I like kirsch cocktails, and this is my go-to for mixing.

WILDCARDS

Hans Reisetbauer Carrot eau de vie (Austria) $73

You never thought a vegetable schnapps could taste this good, but the sweetness and earthy complexity earthy complexity of the carrot is incredible. Tune into the podcast on Monday to listen to our conversation about this, one of my favorite spirits.

Clear Creek Douglas Fir (Oregon)

Christmas in a glass. Made with the yound buds of Douglas fir trees from the Pacific Northwest. If you want a walk on the wild side, try this.

Bottles at the High End — ROCHELT

Be sure to listen to my converation with Alex Rainer of Rochelt, the iconic schnapps producer from the Austrian Alps.

Rochelt Weichsel (Austria) $270

This is one of two cherry brandies made by iconic producer Rochelt, this one from morello cherries is my favorite. It’s pricey, but probably the finest cherry brandy in the world.

Rochelt Wachau Apricot (Austria) $330

It’s hard to explain just how ethereal, complex, and beautiful this spirit is. Made from special apricots grown in Austria’s Wachau wine region. Incredibly hard to find: check with the importer, PM Spirits.

Rochelt Elderberry (Austria) $460

This is not at all like the elderflower liqueur that was so popular a decade ago. So complex — it’s fruity, savory, earthy all at once. It’s “foreign” in all the best ways. Incredibly hard to find: check with the importer, PM Spirits.

Be sure to listen to my converation with Alex Rainer of Rochelt, the iconic schnapps producer from the Austrian Alps.

Cocktails with Eaux de vie?

A few prized schnapps or eaux de vie are much too expensive to mix with, but there are plenty available under $30, such as from Clear Creek in Oregon, that work well in cocktails.

A Farewell to Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway wasn't all about rum. He especially loved kirsch (or kirschwasser), when he skiing in the Alps. Kirsch is rarely the primary spirit in a cocktail, but this noteworthy exception — essentially a “kirsch Collins” — was created by Hemingway in 1937 and published in his friend Charles Baker's The Gentlemen's Companion. The original recipe calls for cherry syrup, but I like to use raspberry syrup. Note the odd ratio and measure carefully for best results: 2 1/4 ounces kirsch to 1 ounce lime juice. From To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, by Philip Greene

  • 2 1/4 ounces kirsch

  • 1 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice

  • 1/4 ounce raspberry or cherry syrup

  • Twist of lime peel, cut into a long spiral, for garnish

  • 2 ounces chilled club soda

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the kirsch, lime juice, and raspberry syrup. Shake well, then strain into a Collins glass filled with ice cubes and the spiral lime peel. Top with club soda.


Ostend Fizz Royale

It's hard to say why this early-20th-century cocktail is named after the city in Belgium, considering it calls for an Alpine cherry brandy (kirsch) and a black currant liqueur from Dijon, France. In any case, this is far superior to the well-known kir royale, made with creme de cassis alone. The original Ostend Fizz calls for club soda, but this “Royale” version calls for sparkling wine, preferably something methode traditionelle. Though it's tempting to simply pour the spirits directly into the glass and stir, shaking creates a more appealing and less cloying drink.

  • 1 ounce kirschwasser

  • 1 ounce creme de cassis

  • Chilled sparkling wine

Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the kirschwasser and creme de cassis; shake well, then strain into an ice-filled highball or Collins glass. Top with about 3 ounces of sparkling wine.


St. Rita

This one is a variation of a recipe that comes from the Zwack family in Hungary, and was in Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book. I use raspberry instead of the honey syrup called for in the original.


Hans Punch Up

This punch, by Adam Bernbach at Proof, is named for a guy he got into a fight with one New Year's Eve. Pretty much any sparkling wine will work, but probably something made with methode traditionelle is best. I realize this goes without saying, but be sure to use pear eau de vie or Poire Williams, not pear liqueur, which will render this cloyingly sweet.

  • 16 ounces clear pear brandy

  • 16 ounces honey syrup (make this like simple syrup but with honey)

  • 8 ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 8 dashes Angostura bitters

  • 8 ounces sparkling wine

  • 8 mint sprigs, for garnish

Combine the pear brandy, honey syrup, lemon juice, and bitters in a large glass pitcher. Add about a cup of ice and and stir vigorously.

To serve, fill 8 glasses with ice; divide the punch among them and top each one with a splash of sparkling wine. Stir gently, and garnish each with a mint sprig


Acacia

This cocktail gives a sense of how a little of bit eau de vie can be used as an accent. Benedictine liqueur replaces vermouth in what is essentially a martini variation, with a bit of kirschwasser instead of bitters. According to mid-century drink lore, this drink took the first prize at a cocktail championship` in Biarritz in 1928.

  • 2 ounces gin

  • 3/4 ounce Benedictine

  • 1/4 ounce kirsch

  • Lemon peel twist

Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express lemon peel over the top, then add as garnish.