If you’re like me, the first thing you think of when you hear the word “schnapps” is the super-minty alcohol you added to hot chocolate when you had those holiday parties back in college. Or the peach-flavored stuff you mixed with orange juice and vodka before you made the grown-up switch to mimosas. Either way, not the best cocktail you’ve had in your life.
That’s schnapps, though. Schnaps, spelled with only one “p," is something entirely different—it’s the German word for fruit brandy. There’s different levels of quality, of course, but go to a high-quality distiller and instead of cloying, artificially flavored booze, you’ll get the Cognac of Austria, one that’s perfect for summer nights on the patio.
To get an inside peek at schnaps, I visited husband-and-wife team Siegfried and Martina Herzog, who have been running their distillery since 1998 in the picturesque town of Saalfelden.
By the time I left, I was figuring out how to pack three bottles in my luggage. Trust me—this is stuff you’ll want to drink.
In The Heart Of Austria’s Foodie Region
Getting to Saalfelden from Salzburg feels like entering a secret world. You’re surrounded by the Alps on all sides, and the drive there weaves you through the mountains, with dense forests everywhere you look.
En route is Hohenwerfen Castle, a medieval bastion that looms mysteriously over the charming town of Werfen and hosts old-world events like falconry shows and jousting tournaments.
You’ll have to drive slowly to navigate the hairpin turns, but that’s all the better to take in the natural scenery around you. When you arrive, you find yourself in the most idyllic of Alpine villages. It’s the sort of place that makes you forget there’s a bustling city just an hour away.
The journey is totally worth it because of the view but even more so because Salzburgerland, the region that includes Saalfelden, is the culinary mecca of Austria. Not only does it boast the highest concentration of award-winning chefs in the country, but there are also nine specially designed culinary-inspired pathways you can follow through the region.
The Herzog distillery is one stop on the beer and schnaps pathway—and after tasting the schnaps here, you’ll be tempted to follow the route to its end.
Schnaps: Fruit Essence In Liquid Form
So what does schnaps taste like, exactly? Martina describes it as “like an essence from a lot of fruits in a small glass.”
Typical fruits used in schnaps production include apples, pears, plums, apricots, and cherries. You also have the rowanberry, or mountain ash, which is extremely tart when eaten raw but transforms into a super-lush elixir after going through the distillation process. Modern-day distillers like the Herzogs are pushing boundaries, experimenting with flavors like ginger and lemongrass that make for fun warm-weather drinks.
With the best producers, the flavor of a glass of schnaps is obvious as soon as you smell it. The Herzogs make an eggnog-flavored one that, I promise you, will take your Christmas party to the next level.
High-Quality Schnaps From High-Quality Fruits
One of the interesting things about the Herzogs’ facility is that alongside schnaps, they also produce their own cheese.
On my tour, I wander from a giant distillation machine to pens for the goats. Funnily enough, the goats are the ones that schnaps was originally intended for; Martina explains: “For the farmers, 100 or 200 years ago, it was like medicine for the cows and the people who worked here.” The tradition carries on, livestock and liquor nurtured in tandem.
To make schnaps, ripened fruit and yeast are combined in a mash, then heated so that the alcohol evaporates. Once the alcohol cools and condenses, it is diluted to an ABV of 40% before being filtered and bottled.
The process itself is, honestly, pretty similar to that of other liquors. What separates high-quality schnaps from the run-of-the-mill is the details. “It is not a big difference, because it is the same process, but it is like cooking,” says Martina. “When you cook something, you also need a special taste, and here it's the same.” Different variables like how long to let the mash sit or how quickly to distill the alcohol affect the flavor.
A key factor that makes the Herzogs’ schnaps a cut above the rest is the purity of their ingredients. Martina and Siegfried process 400,000 kilograms (880,000 pounds) of ripened fruit each year, but because of the intense distillation process, very little liquor is extracted. 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of pears makes only one liter (4 cups) of schnaps. For raspberry schnaps? One liter takes 50 kilograms.
Not all producers are as rigorous in their production methods. Cheaper schnaps is flavored artificially. “Some spirits have no fruit inside, only flavor,” says Martina. “At our distillery, it is all-natural, 100-percent fruit.”
If you’re shopping for schnaps to add to your liquor cabinet, be sure to look for bottles that have no artificial additives.
The Right Way To Drink Schnaps
The most important to keep in mind is that schnaps is meant for casual sipping. Unlike hard liquors that are often mixed with juices and syrups to lessen their potency, schnaps is intended to be enjoyed by itself. “When I was younger I also drank tequila and vodka,” says Martina. “Now I don't want so much alcohol, maybe just a little bit, and it has to have a really good taste.”
That said, if you like a longer drink, schnaps makes the perfect ingredient for breezy cocktails. It’s fruity and pairs well with white wine, making for an elevated take on the classic spritzer. Instead of reaching for another bottle of rosé, try schnaps as go-to drink for summer.
Remember: this isn’t a cheap mixer for your holiday drinks any more. This is a drink worth savoring any time of the year.
Is your interest piqued? This is just the start.
Learn more about Austria and how Journy can help you plan your trip in Vienna, Salzburg, or Innsbruck at austria.gojourny.com!