Pursuits: Fruit and Fire
The lush Austrian countryside is home to some of the world’s leading makers of eau-de-vie.
Alois Gölles holds an apricot in his hand. It is the end of June, the peak of the harvest in Styria, Austria’s verdant orchard country, and a local farmer has just arrived in a van filled with the ruddy gold, zaftig beauties he picked earlier that morning. “You don’t want them too soft,” Gölles says, “but pick them one day less and they’re too green. This is the problem. The border is very small.”
He grips the apricot a little tighter and it breaks open, revealing fruit that is soft and ripe but still gives some resistance. The juice is sweet, but tinged with an acidic bite, and fragrant with complex, earthy flavors. It is, Gölles declares, “perfect.” And with that, the apricots, a rare 100-year-old variety called Ungarische Beste, begin their short journey from the tree to the masher—the start of a single batch that will be fermented and distilled, aged for 3 years, and then blended with distillates from several other varieties of apricots to produce one of the world’s most powerfully evocative eaux-de-vie.
In Austria, there are hundreds of makers of these potent fruit spirits—every farmer is allowed to produce them, and there is a long tradition of distilling a rough batch of firewater with plums, apples, cherries, or whatever mushy, imperfect fruit happens to be on hand. In the past 20 years, though, there has been a movement to refine the spirit and lift it to greater heights. Orchardists such as Gölles in Styria and Hans Reisetbauer in Upper Austria are rescuing old fruit varieties and developing new ones. They grow organically, meticulously pruning and tending each tree, and handpicking the fruit. They use custom-made copper stills and employ the finesse of a winemaker to create elegant, concentrated spirits out of an astonishing range of fruits, nuts, and even vegetables, without any added sugar or fragrances. Most of these fine spirits—which Austrians call schnapps—are produced in such limited quantities, they never make it out of the country. A trip to Austria can be a revelation for the curious drinker, who may end an evening sipping a Gölles schnapps made from rowanberries, which surprises with the flavors of almond, marzipan, and bitter chocolate, or perhaps topping off a meal with a splash of Reisetbauer’s wild carrot or ginger eau-de-vie.
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