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.”
‘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 Mr. Rainer’s father-in-law, Günter Rochelt, began distilling in his garage as a hobby. Now, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, or about $65, a surprisingly good deal considering that a bottle of Rochelt schnapps can cost upward of $300 in the United States.
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. Mr. 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. Even in the dead of winter, Mr. Rainer said, at least one of the four tall, copper stills is churning away.
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, Mr. Rainer spritzed apricot schnapps above our heads, so that the ripe fruit enveloped every sense.
Schnapps is deeply flavorful — as you swish a little tasting glass, schnapps leaves traces on the sides much like wine legs. It is also strong: Most varieties are around 150 proof, or roughly 75 percent alcohol, right after distillation. But instead of diluting it with water as most schnapps makers do, Mr. Rainer lets the spirit rest in the attic until the alcohol and fruit flavors are more balanced.
In a dimly lit room beneath the rafters, he showed us large glass demijohns lining wooden shelves and capped with just a thin linen cloth. They sit there untouched until a certain percentage of alcohol evaporates — Rochelt’s twist on the “angel’s share,” or what distillers call the amount of alcohol that vanishes while aging in barrels.
Back in the kitchen, workers were busy filling jars with apricot jam, spooning a small amount of schnapps on top then briefly lighting it ablaze before screwing on the caps — an old-fashioned way of sealing a jar, Mr. Rainer said.
Orchards with a postcard 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 like venison and dumplings. Children with sleds race down a small hill nearby.
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 seven-and-a-half-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.
A white cat streaked by as Mr. Draxl showed off 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), but I opted for just a schnapps tasting. Mr. Draxl pulled sleek glass bottles from a shelf and offered samples.
The idea is that there is a schnapps for every taste, Mr. 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.
No matter what the fruit, each schnapps maker seeks out the herzstück, or heart cut, which is the portion of the distilled alcohol that has the best flavors and aromas and is most suited to drinking.
Like Mr. Rainer of Rochelt, Mr. Draxl aims to create a warm, welcoming space for visitors and locals to savor his product. “My aim is that people go out with a little more knowledge, so that when they meet their friends, they can bring them in,” Mr. Draxl said.
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 Kössler, the owner, Christoph Kössler, 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 space is larger and more industrial than most in Tyrol: The stills have shiny stainless steel exteriors over the traditional copper, and one wall brims with Mr. Kössler’s awards and recognitions.
Next door, Mr. Kössler had to duck to enter the wood-paneled front room of a centuries-old house where the Baroque architect Jakob Prandtauer (the JP on the Kössler logo) was born in the 17th century. We cozied up to a schnapps made of plums from his own orchard, while Mr. Kössler mixed drinks. A tour and tasting at JP Kössler costs €20 per person.
Mr. Kössler 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,” Mr. Kössler said, “and you have to do it really right on the production side.”
How to get a taste
Most distillers in Tyrol open their doors to curious visitors. The Tyrolean tourism office offers suggestions for schnapps tours on its website, and Tiroler Edelbrand Sommeliers, a distillers’ association, lists dozens of schnapps makers and tasting events on its website.
Before you visit a distillery, check its website for hours and instructions on how to book a tasting — usually by contacting the owner or a government-certified guide. Hotels in Tyrol often offer shuttles around the region, but distillery owners will also arrange for transportation. They might even pick you up themselves.
“When a guest is coming up, you give him a schnapps,” said Ms. Unterholzner, the tour guide. “You welcome him with a schnapps. And you’re proud of the schnapps.”
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