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Living Proof a.k.a. Carinhtian Schnapps

28 March 2010
Here is a little something ...

In Friesach, the picture-perfect Austrian town halfway between Vienna and Venice, in the Carinthian Alps, there is a bar that changed my understanding of the word "schnapps."

Berni's, an unassuming little storefront on Friesach's Fabergé-like central square, seats a bit more than a dozen people, if they all hold their breath at once; if it's open, Bernhard Kreiner himself is in the house, dispensing drinks and Alpine philosophy in equal portions. He makes a delicious espresso and always keeps a bottle of Grüner Veltliner open, and there's no shortage of lager on tap, this being Austria. But like those of most other Carinthians, Berni's sly, nut-brown eyes take on an almost mystical fire when the talk turns to schnapps. He serves three special varieties �" apple, pear and apricot �" each bought directly from a local farmer, and to taste them is to forget, momentarily, about everything else in the world.

"Delicious, isn't it?" Berni asked when I first tasted his Birnenbrand �" exquisite pear schnapps in which the character of the fruit hits the palate like the chiming of a tiny silver bell. "A good schnapps should have no sweetness to it. It should be dry, even fierce, as in the case of grappa, or what the French call eau de vie. But after the kick of the alcohol has passed, after the fierceness is gone, your mouth should contain nothing but the aroma of the fruit. That's why only the freshest pears or apples or plums should ever be used to make it. "

We in the United States have long labored under a profound misconception of what schnapps is, perhaps largely because of unfortunate associations with frat houses, flaming shots at happy hours and that ungodly, mentholated monstrosity �" consumed in Germany, its country of origin, primarily as a digestif �" known as Jägermeister. The dictionary definition of schnapps ("a strong liquor in which flavoring, for example, peppermint, is distilled in rather than added later") would be grumbled over by every true schnapps distiller, or burner, in Austria. The so-called flavoring of schnapps, I discovered, is neither more nor less than the aroma of the apples, berries, grains, herbs or pine needles that make up its mash: the word "peppermint" alone is enough to make most schnapps distillers cringe. In this sense, Cognac, grappa, aquavit and even gin are examples of schnapps, or would be if German-speaking people distilled them.

Much like dry sherry, genuine schnapps is uncharted territory for most Americans, a secret that our culinary biases have kept us from discovering. The swift rise of Austrian wine in recent decades is beginning to change that, however. American gourmands at dinner now request Austrian varietals that they'd never heard of a decade ago �" Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, the now-ubiquitous Grüner �" which has led, in turn, to a new interest in Austrian food and drink outside the vineyard. And no small part of the pleasure in store for the budding connoisseur, or feinschmecker, lies in exploring the idyllic and tucked-away hamlets where most of the best schnapps is made.

The Gasthof Liegl, one of exactly six buildings that make up the Carinthian village of Sankt Peter bei Taggenbrunn, lies comfortably ensconced between a half-century-old barn and a millennium-old village church. Its apple-cheeked proprietor, Gerhard Liegl (no other expression but "apple-cheeked" will do), radiates warmth and well-being like the potbellied copper still he makes his schnapps in. Sankt Peter is one of the most picturesque nooks in a region of Austria that seems like a landscape on loan from the afterlife �" golden wheat fields, blue-green forests, crumbling castles in the middle distance �" and Liegl is clearly a man who knows he's got it good. His family have been innkeepers for three generations and farmers since time immemorial, and schnapps burning has been a late-autumn ritual for 40 of Gerhard Liegl's 57 years. The schnapps he makes �" apple, pear, plum and obstler (a blend of pear and apple) �" is clear and robust and ever-so-slightly rough around the edges. "We don't have much use for big-city life here," Liegl told me, sounding for a moment like the Alabama moonshiner he so resembles. When I asked him what big city meant to him, he thought for a moment. "What's that town you live in?" Brooklyn, I told him. "Brooklyn," Liegl said thoughtfully. "I guess that's pretty close to what I mean."

The last few decades have seen a paradigm shift among Austria's small distillers, from simplicity and tradition toward ever more rarefied and spectacular bottlings. Liegl's schnapps, however, is unmistakably a product of the old ways. To savor a stamperl of schnapps at one of the little tables at the foot of the enormous lime tree in the middle of the Liegl farmyard, watching the sunlight leaving the facade of the church and the hilltop behind it, is to feel distinctly spoiled. As I listened to the chatter of well-fed Carinthians at the surrounding tables, feeling the warmth of the schnapps spread outward in all directions, I let my eyes close for a moment in childish delight. "That's a good sign," Liegl said, nodding. When I asked him what he meant, he shrugged his broad shoulders. "The look on your face is," he told me. "Good schnapps should turn everyone into a baby, just like good food does. Isn't that a glorious feeling?"

Gregor Hohenberg
One of Wilhelm Jesche's stills.
There's no better way to explore Carinthia than by eating and drinking your way across it, and the Carinthians know this better than anyone. While I was waiting for a train connection in Klagenfurt, the state capital, my growing collection of schnapps bottles caught the attention of a sporty young man in a green loden jacket. "Making the grand tour, I take it?" he asked me politely, in perfect Cambridge-tinged English. I confessed that I was, half-expecting him to arch an eyebrow. Instead he leaned forward and said in a whisper: "Go to Jesche, near Treffen. Wilhelm Jesche's your man."

I was already on my way to Wilhelm Jesche, as it happens, but I was a little uneasy about it. Jesche is a controversial character in schnapps-burning circles, a self-proclaimed outsider who has taken it upon himself to revolutionize the industry, and his well-known reclusiveness and ornery temperament haven't done much to help his cause. What has helped his cause is his schnapps. The apple and pear varieties both won Austria's prestigious distilling prize, the Destillata, the very first year he produced them. Since then, Jesche has become a cult figure among enthusiasts, a white-haired, ruddy-nosed Merlin, holed up in a shuttered gasthaus in the shadow of the castle Landskron, burning schnapps to please only himself and a devout following of Carinthia's most prominent feinschmeckers. Jesche's inn and distillery are open to visitors by appointment, but that doesn't mean that visits are encouraged. It took me the better part of a morning to get anyone on the phone, and then, to my surprise, it turned out to be the maestro himself. He'd been in the cellar, he explained, with the latest bottling of his Apfelschnapps. What had he been doing, exactly? I asked. Jesche considered my question. "Smelling it, mostly," he answered.

Jesche's property is just a few miles from Ossiacher See, one of the loveliest of Carinthia's justly famous lakes, and on my drive there I passed waterside cottages, crumbling fortifications and vineyards on south-facing slopes. Jesche was waiting for me in the office of his distillery, a cozy, cluttered room that was utterly dwarfed by the enormous stainless steel kettles outside. We'd barely said hello before he gave me the Apfelschnapps to sample, but only a few precious drops: among his other eccentricities, Jesche is not much of a drinker. "Schnapps should be drunk for the aroma �" not to get drunk from," he said.

It was the Williams pear schnapps, Jesche's first prizewinner, that ushered me into the cult permanently. The essence of the fruit was there, of course, a gold-green buzzing at the base of my throat, but that was only the beginning. As I stood with my elbows on the inn's polished bartop, an entire autumn seemed to pass through me in a single instant. In my giddiness, I found myself recounting a run-in with Jägermeister at a party back in college, the experience that nearly put me off schnapps forever. There was a long pause �" long even for Jesche �" during which the maestro squinted at me blankly, as if I'd suddenly begun speaking Urdu. The sun was setting in the picture window behind him, dipping behind a ridge of blue-black firs, and the rear fender of my rental car was the only evidence that we were still in the 21st century. "Ah yes, Jägermeister," Jesche said finally. "But I thought we were talking about schnapps."

Vessel Name: Carinthia
Vessel Make/Model: Lagoon 444 #258
Hailing Port: Las Vegas
Crew: Dietmar / Suzanne / Vienna / Kurt