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Thursday July 22, 2010

Schnapps shots

During a visit to Austria, our columnist was duty-bound to research the country’s national drink, schnapps.

ONE of the most fascinating things about liquors and spirits is that almost every country in the world has its own traditional drink. For instance, Japan has its sake, Russia has its vodka, and Mexico has tequila.

And over in the German-speaking region of Austria and Switzerland, they have their fruit brandies and spirits, better known as schnaps (spelled “schnapps” in English).

During a recent visit to Vienna, I decided to learn more about schnapps, and what better place to do so than at an actual museum dedicated to the making of schnapps?

Founded in 1875, the Alt-Wiener Schnapsmuseum, or Old Vienna Schnapps Museum (schnapsmuseum.com), is actually an old Viennese distillery where five generations of the Fischer family have been distilling schnapps the traditional Austrian way. Visitors can take a tour of the place, conducted by museum founder Gerhard Fischer who also makes the schnapps personally inside the distillery.

The real deal: ‘When you buy a bottle of genuine schnapps, the bottle should say ‘brandy’ or ‘spirit’, and also ‘100% distillate’,’ says Gerhard Fischer .

“This is a ‘living museum’ – we still make our schnapps in the places you will be visiting,” said Fischer, 72, who explained that the traditional Fischer schnapps recipe was passed down from father to son.

On the tour, Fischer first took us through an office that is still equipped with items dating back to the very beginnings of the factory; and from there, we went down a narrow corridor into the distillery room – where Fischer still makes his family’s traditional schnapps personally. In one corner of the room sits a large antique steam-driven boiler, where fermented fruits are boiled together with alcohol as part of the distilling process; and lining the shelves of the room are bottles of herbs and spices.

It is here that Fischer gave us an explanation of what schnapps really is. In Europe, more specifically in the German speaking countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland; alcohol that is made from fermented fruits by the distillation process is called schnapps. These pure fruit brandies are usually made out of apples, pears, plums, and cherries, though in Austria, apricots and even raspberries are used as well.

According to Fischer, genuine schnapps (which they also call “distillate”) does not have sugar or any artificial aroma substances, and usually contains about 38% to 45% alcohol base volume (ABV).

Some of the equipment used in making schnapps, at the Old Vienna Schnapps Museum.

“The ‘schnapps’ you usually get in America or England is actually liqueurs, because they add sugar to it,” he explained. “When you buy a bottle of genuine schnapps, the bottle should say ‘brandy’ or ‘spirit’, and also ‘100% distillate’.”

No tour of a distillery would be complete without a tasting session, and the tour of the Schnapps Museum is no exception. On the final leg of the tour, we were given a chance to try out the entire range of products that the Schnapps Museum has to offer, from the pure schnapps, absinthe, to the sweet liqueurs and liqueur creams.

The main products that come out of the Fischer family factory include Fischer’s Apricot Brandy, Fischer’s Williams Pear Brandy and Fischer’s Wild Raspberry Spirit.

Clear, powerful, with a fruity after taste, these schnapps are the real deal, meticulously produced by Fischer personally, who taught us how to tell a real schnapps from a liqueur.

Jars of different herbs, nuts, roots, and even pieces of wood used to flavour the schnapps line the shelves in the distillation room .

“Put a drop of it on the back of your hand and then rub it like a perfume. Wait a few seconds for the alcohol to evaporate, then sniff it – if it smells like fermented fruits, then it is a real schnapps. If it smells like sugar or candy, then chances are it is a liqueur,” said Fischer, who said that among all their products, the longest to make is the clear schnapps. “We have to mash the fruits, wait for them to ferment, and then we distil and store for at least one year to three years.”

Also available exclusively at the museum are their own brand of absinthe (Mata Hari, 60% ABV) and a range of flavoured liqueurs and liqueur creams.

Among the most unique of these other products is Fischer’s Gold Liqueur, which is a combination of orange distillate, French XO cognac, a secret recipe of herbs and other ingredients, and genuine 23-carat gold leaves that add a classy sparkle to the concoction. According to Fischer, the liqueur is usually served mixed with a glass of champagne in high society events, which makes for a really classy drink indeed.

Another interesting product is the bright red-coloured Fischer’s Fire Fly Liqueur. Made with red chilli pods and boasting a whopping 55% ABV, it is not a drink for those with weak stomachs, though Fischer claims it can help cure coughs: “Take one shot of it, and when you feel it in your stomach, take a few deep breaths. That should help with your cough.”

Although he admits that beer is still the number one drink in Austria, he is still proud of the Austrian traditional drink. “Austrians usually drink schnapps before meal as an aperitif, or after the meal as a digestif,” he said.

Over in Switzerland, schnapps is also considered something of a national drink.

“Every farmer in Switzerland can make schnapps, though they can only make a certain amount of it each year,” said Shumil Arun Chanda, founder of Swiss Dreams Singapore Pte Ltd, a company that specialises in importing Swiss products into the region.

Besides beer, the Swiss Dreams booth at the recent Beerfest Asia 2010 event in Singapore also had a range of high-end Etter brand schnapps, made from pure cherries.

According to Shumit, there are a number of ways schnapps is drunk in Switzerland.

“The usual way is to take it neat, in shots. We usually take it together with cheese and bread – we soak the bread with schnapps first, and then eat it together with cheese. Some people also add a bit of schnapps in their coffee when they go skiing, to keep warm,” he said. “You can also make a submarine – just take a pint of beer, put in a shot of schnapps, and then down it in one go!”

Michael Cheang reckons that the best museums are those that serve free booze after the tours.

Tips

> Unlike vodka, schnapps should never be stored in the freezer. The ideal temperature should be around 15°C-18°C.

> Never serve schnapps with ice cubes, as the ice will dilute the aroma.

> The alcohol content of a pure distillate should be about 38%-42% (about 80-90 proof).

> Schnapps is usually served in a small shot glass, which is emptied with a single gulp (hence the name schnap, which is Old German for “swallow”).

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