When winter arrives in western Austria and the sun disappears all too quickly behind the snow-capped Alps, you can stand in bare orchards and still taste the sun-ripened fruit that the trees once bore — just sip a glass of schnapps.
For centuries, farmers in the Tyrol region have mashed, fermented and distilled apples, plums, apricots and other fruit into schnapps, a strong spirit enjoyed most commonly as a digestif. It is sometimes infused with local herbs and plants, like fruit from the Austrian stone pine.
The more than four million tourists who flock to Tyrolean ski towns like Seefeld and Ischgl will find roughly 4,000 schnapps distilleries scattered throughout the region, often just a short hop from the slopes. Not only does this elixir warm the soul; it also provides a strong dose of a deep local tradition.
“When you visit a city, people want to know how we lived in former times, and what we eat and what we drink today,” said Monika Unterholzner, a tour guide. In Austria, especially in the mountains of Tyrol, “schnapps is both,” she said. “It is part of our identity.”
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American schnapps is usually a grain-based, artificially flavored spirit, but in European schnapps, the fruit itself determines the end result, meaning that the quality of the ingredients is everything. Distillers hunt down the best produce or cultivate it in their own orchards, where they can watch it ripen on the branch.
“The actual process is all very simple,” said Alexander Rainer, who runs the Rochelt distillery in Fritzens, just east of Innsbruck. “And I think the most beautiful things in life, usually they’re not complicated.”