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 4 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.”
‘Where you can welcome your friends’
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.”
Rochelt’s luxury schnapps-making operation is tucked away behind the gates of an unassuming white and green-trimmed farmhouse. Inside, the air is thick with the smell of fermenting fruit.
The tradition at Rochelt began in the 1970s, when Rainer’s father-in-law, Gunter Rochelt, began distilling in his garage as a hobby. Now, Rainer runs the business with the same warmth instilled by his mother-in-law, who had one request of her husband when he started the distillery.
“If you build your distillery, just make sure you have a big kitchen and a big place where you can welcome your friends,” she said, as Rainer recounted it. “Every weekend he was having cooking sessions with friends and schnapps.”
Visitors drawn to nearby medieval castles, contemporary architecture by the likes of Zaha Hadid and sparkling exhibitions at the Swarovski crystal headquarters can enjoy a tour, tasting and meal at Rochelt for the friendly price of 60 euros (about $65), a surprisingly good deal considering that a bottle of Rochelt schnapps can cost upward of $300 in the U.S.
As the tour began, I was ushered into a bright kitchen and handed a glass of water flavored with a homemade elderberry blossom syrup. A pot of apricot jam bubbled on the stove — a way to use the fruit left over from making schnapps.
Unlike most distilleries in Tyrol, Rochelt does not have its own orchards. Rainer instead sources fruit from select growers in the surrounding regions. No matter what the fruit, it is left to ripen on the branch, then handpicked, mashed and fermented. The mash then goes to the distillery, where guests can see how it transforms into a perfectly clear spirit.
After the tour, we enjoyed lunch in a cozy dining room built from wood salvaged from three 150-year-old farmhouses. The menu featured pumpkin soup followed by kaiserschmarrn, a kind of scrambled pancake, served with the fresh apricot jam. For the finishing touch, Rainer spritzed apricot schnapps above our heads, so that the ripe fruit enveloped every sense.
Schnapps is deeply flavorful. It is also strong: Most varieties are around 150 proof, or roughly 75% alcohol, right after distillation. But instead of diluting it with water as most schnapps makers do, Rainer lets the spirit rest in the attic until the alcohol and fruit flavors are more balanced.
Orchards with a view
On snowy afternoons, the center of Seefeld, a village northwest of Innsbruck that’s famous for cross-country skiing, draws tourists to streets lined with cozy shops and Alpine-lodge-style hotels. Local breweries and traditional inns serve Tyrolean delicacies such as venison and dumplings.
Several of the luxury resorts in the area source their schnapps from the Draxl Distillery, across the rushing Inn River from Seefeld. Hubert Draxl oversees the roughly 7 1/2-acre farm with his wife and parents. The window in the modern, wood-paneled tasting room inside overlooks the farm and the village of Inzing below, a postcard view with the church steeple framed between the mountains.
Draxl toured his orchards, walking among 10,000 trees that grow plums and six varieties of apples. They formed neat lines down the mountainside, revealing glimpses of the valley below between their bare branches.
The distillery offers visitors Tyrolean meals of cheese, fresh-baked bread and speck, a type of bacon (meal and tasting, 50 euros), but I opted for just a schnapps tasting.
The idea is that there is a schnapps for every taste, Draxl said — you just have to find your favorite. It might be a classic apple schnapps or a rarer variety, like rowanberry, the bitter fruit of the mountain ash tree. The wild berry is unappealing to eat off the branch but produces a delicious schnapps, in which I tasted notes of oak and marzipan.
A high-altitude zing
A variety of plum that’s distinctive to the cliffs and crags of the Tyrolean Oberland, one of the few that grow at such a high elevation, give the area’s schnapps a unique flavor. Visitors to resorts in the Ischgl area can get a taste of that distinctive fruit at a cluster of distilleries near Landeck.
At JP Kossler, the owner, Christoph Kossler, leads tours through his modern distillery, lined with windows that look up toward a precariously perched line of plum trees and the mountains behind them. The stills have shiny stainless steel exteriors over the traditional copper.
Next door, Kossler had to duck to enter the wood-paneled front room of a centuries-old house where baroque architect Jakob Prandtauer (the JP on the Kossler logo) was born in the 17th century. We cozied up to a schnapps made of plums from his own orchard. A tour and tasting at JP Kossler costs 20 euros per person.
Kossler began distilling in 1995 — a time, he said, when there was new interest in distilling a quality product rather than just using up leftover fruit by making schnapps. But he made many mistakes before he got it right.
“If you make schnapps and you want to make good schnapps, you need good fruit,” Kossler said, “and you have to do it really right on the production side.”