Guest drink: Schnapps

Louise crane gets fruity with this month's guest booze


Hands up who’s had schnapps? For those waivering, hand mid-air, confused by what this curiously-named drink is (and whether the singular of schnapps is a schnapp), don’t worry, it’s a bit complicated. There are two very different varieties: the German, and the American. Schnapps schnobs see the German offering as “true” schnapps, the original and best, with the American form the imposter. Those in the American corner will say theirs is simply a re-interpretation of a classic European decoction. Ferment is here to separate the two and sort out what’s what, and what’s not.

Across Europe, schnapps has been popular since as long as alcohol has been distilled. The German schnaps, with one p, refers to any kind of strong alcoholic drink. It’s similar to how eau de vie is used in France. Typically, the German schnapps (an Anglicized spelling) are spirits distilled from fruits, aka fruit brandies. Traditionally, ripe fruit would be fermented into a low-grade fruit wine over several weeks and then distilled with varying levels of skill and technology. The final percentage abv would usually be lower than a vodka, to retain some of the flavours of the original fruit. Apothecaries of the 15th and 16th centuries sold these as medicines and tonics, to invigorate the body, settle the stomach, and cure diseases. Some were touted as aphrodisiacs, and the most ‘effective’ were suffused with precious gold flakes and pearls.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that these strong alcohols were imbibed for their intoxicating qualities. Taken as a shot in one fell gulp, and sometimes with a salute (the Danish cry “skal”), they would cleanse the palate as a digest if during a meal. This knock-back method is the origin of the name, schnaps coming from the Low German verb snappen, meaning to snatch or gulp.

Today, ‘schnapps’ covers the distillates drunk around Austria, Switzerland, and southern Germany. Most, like the Obstler or Obstbrand varieties, are primarily fruit-flavoured (the German Obst means fruit). Apples and pears together make Obstwasser (fruit water); pears are used to produce Poire Williams; several types of plums make Zwetschgenwasser (plum water); cherries make Kirschwasser (cherry water); and apricots are used to make Austrian Marillenschnaps (apricot brandy). Himbeergeist, though not an Obstler, is an infusion of fresh raspberries in neutral spirits, steeped for several weeks before being distilled.

Kräuterlikör (herbal liqueur) is another popular form of schnapps, often sweetened. These are made with dozens of herbs and spices and aged usually for at least one year. Depending on your taste and maturity, one such schnapps may be familiar to Ferment readers: Jägermeister, the fatal ingredient of the Jägerbomb. Other styles include Underberg, Kuemmerling, Killepitsch and Wurzelpeter. 

Across Europe, different cultures have named their own schnaps-style drinks. The Balkans and Eastern Europe have Rakija and Slivovitz made from damson plums. Romania has horinka, from the Ukrainian “horilka,” used for low-quality spirits. The typical Transylvanian schnapps is palinca, a derivation of the Hungarian word “palinka,” which in turn comes from the Slavonic “paliti,” meaning “to burn.” Indeed, if you want to set your throat on fire, try plum brandy from northwestern Transylvania.

Akvavit is the Scandinavian variant, originating in Denmark but now most popular in Norway, perfect with seafood and dill-flavoured sauces. Potatoes form the base alcohol for macerating caraway seeds, fennel, dill, cumin and bitter orange peel before being distilled again, in much the same way that gin is made. The most widely seen brands are Aalborg Akvavit, Lysholm Linie and Loiten Export. The latter two are aged in casks that have travelled around the world in the cargo-hold of a ship. Salty.

A German visitor to America looking for a little home cheer might be disappointed upon ordering schnapps at a bar. The American version is a much sweeter beast than its German forebear and bottled at a relatively wimpish 15% to 20% abv. These schnapps are made by simply steeping fruit in high strength, neutral grain alcohol before watering it down to drinkable levels and adding flavourings, colour additives and sugar. They are in fact much more similar to what we Brits would know as a liqueur, just a bit less sweet - peppermint schnapps is not as sickly as creme de menthe.

Famous American brands include 99, Arrow, DeKuyper, Dr. McGillicuddy and Hiram Walker and the most popular flavours are peach, peppermint, sour apple, and butterscotch. These sweet concoctions are tasty enough to drink neat but swiftly become sickly. They are much more palatable in a cocktail. The most iconic has got to be Sex on the Beach, a fruity highball made from vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice and cranberry juice.

It’s the Fuzzy Navel though that is to thank for schnapps’ popularity in America. In the early 80s, the wine and spirits sector was flagging, brought down by anti-alcohol sentiment based around drunk driving. Executives at drinks conglomerate National Distillers wanted a lower proof, sweeter, lighter product to market, and flavour scientist Earl LaRoe created a peach liqueur released as DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps in 1984. Longtime bartender Ray Foley was brought in for an opinion. Right there and then on executive Jack Doyle’s desk, he mixed together the peach liqueur with orange juice, garnished with a wedge of orange, and christened it the Fuzzy Navel. Doyle loved it, and ordered all his salesmen to go around the country with bottles of Peachtree and orange juice.

DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps became the ninth best-selling alcohol in America, shifting over 12 million bottles in its first year. It was the fastest-selling new alcohol product since Prohibition. Thirty copycat peach schnapps, including British favourite Archers, immediately flooded the market. By 1985, liqueurs constituted a record 10.9% share of the spirits market, powered by increased consumption of fruit-flavoured schnapps.

Today we have a smörgåsbord of schnapps to choose from. Archers, Goldschlager, Jaeger, Buttershots, Apfelkorn and anything by Teichenne. Welcome some sweetness in your life with an “apple ball” (apple schnapps and club soda); a “pearanoid” (pear schnapps and tequila); or a “woo-woo” (peach schnapps, vodka and cranberry juice); or stand at the table, raise a glass to your guests and shout “skal”. While Ferment can only suggest you might awaken your mind, cure your ills and improve your sex life, we can guarantee that if you drink a lot of schnapps, you’ll only wake up with a sore head. Oh, snap.

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