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Pursuits: Fruit and Fire

The lush Austrian countryside is home to some of the world’s leading makers of eau-de-vie...

<< Back to Robb Report, Robb Report Collection June 2015

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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Gölles grew up in the orchards of Styria, the country’s richest fruit-growing region, and his philosophy is firmly rooted there. “I want it to be like a mirror on the landscape,” he says of his schnapps, all 16 of which are made from fruits, nuts, and herbs grown within 125 miles of his distillery. “We are very lucky because of the variety grown here. So we use no lemons from Italy or figs from Turkey or pineapples or mangoes.” 

Almost 70 percent of the fruit grown in Austria is from this rolling, green landscape nicknamed Vulcanland, the Volcano Land. At its heart is Riegersburg Castle, a medieval fortress atop a promontory formed by a dormant volcano, a source of the region’s rich soil. Coupled with the warm southeast Austrian climate, steadily stirred by Pannonian winds from the east, the area offers ideal growing conditions for fruit and wine grapes, as well as the foundation for regional delicacies like pumpkinseed oil and tender volcano ham. 

There are about 15,000 acres of Styrian orchards in all, Gölles says, and about 100 of those are his. Some were originally planted by his father; back then, the family grew apples, pears, plums, and red currants, and made apple juice and apple cider as well. But by the mid-1980s, Gölles was looking for a way to make the farm sustainable; there was a lot of competition for a fruit grower and juice maker, but hardly any for a maker of fine schnapps and vinegars.

Like other farmers, the Gölleses made a little of each for their own use, and Gölles set out to expand the operation. He began with the fruit, scouring the countryside almost tree by tree, looking for old varieties. Even today, he drives over the narrow country roads, pointing out the “old-fashioned” trees in his neighbors’ yards, heavy with fruit, and noting, “Those are mine.” He has trained his growers to pick at a precise moment of ripeness, which means it can take days to harvest fruit from the same tree. It takes about 10 years for a grower to achieve that level of understanding of the fruit. “It is very easy to get a load of this and a load of that,” he says. “But the flavors we want are different—a lighter flavor, an earlier flavor.” 

More important, Gölles also expanded his own orchards with varieties that had nearly gone extinct. He planted 25 acres of Maschansker apples, which are not as pretty or sugary sweet as Golden Delicious, but whose slight bitterness and astringency added a spectrum of flavors to his apple schnapps. The same goes for his plantings of old kriecherl plums and saubirne pears. The saubirne is a tiny, bitter fruit that is quick to rot; it was grown to be fed to sows. But distilled, it adds variety to the bouquet of a pear schnapps, and on its own it creates a fascinating eau-de-vie. “If you don’t know what it is, you can’t identify the flavor,” Gölles says. “Raspberry, maybe strawberry, what could it be? No one can guess it. But the flavor and aroma goes straight through.” 

Gölles handles each fruit differently after harvesting. Williams pear, for example, is held in cool storage for two weeks to develop its distinct flavor. But today’s apricots go directly into the masher. After they are crushed into a chunky pulp, they are delivered into steel fermentation tanks, where they will bubble for 10 days. Then, they are distilled twice in a pot-bellied copper still, designed by Christian Carl, a renowned still maker in Göppingen, Germany. Over the three weeks of the apricot harvest, Gölles will mash three times a week. Each mash, made with one of five different apricot varieties, will be distilled separately. The second distillate, which is 70 to 80 percent alcohol, will be allowed to rest for three years in glass demijohns to concentrate and develop softer, greener flavors. Gölles will blend them to create a single cuvée, and cut them with spring water to about 45 percent alcohol. The cuvée, he says, “is like a composition. A mosaic. You fill in as many stones as you can to get as sharp a picture.”

Since 1990, he has listed the vintage on the label, and as a matter of pride, removed the words “eau-de-vie,” the French term for the spirit, in favor of the Austrian name, schnapps. In the end, he will make a little less than 85 liters of his 2014 apricot schnapps. 

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Hans reisetbauer, too, began with a family farm, one that grew mainly wheat and barley in the fertile soil and cooler climate of Upper Austria. But Reisetbauer was completely bored with that pursuit: “I was not interested,” he says. “I couldn’t see the point in a high-volume crop sold in big storehouses. I’m interested in particular varieties.”

He began distilling in 1994, starting with fruit bought from other growers, and quickly learned that to get distinct flavors, he had to grow it himself. The farm’s location—a hilly plain above the fog line, between the Danube and the Alps—proved ideal. Today he has about 86 acres planted with rowanberry, cherry, quince, apricot, three kinds of plum, 10 varieties of apple, and three varieties of pear. 

On this June morning, he is walking one of the new orchards, which is planted with red pears. The trees are just 3 years old, and 2014 will be the first harvest. Reisetbauer plucks off leaves so the wind can better circulate and the sun can better ripen the clusters of green fruit. Months earlier, he had mercilessly plucked off perfect baby pears to get a smaller, more flavorful crop. In August, he will harvest this one orchard three times, to select pears at specific points of ripeness. 

For his pear eau-de-vie, considered by many to be the best in the world, he aims for 15 percent overripe fruit, 35 percent perfectly ripe, and 50 percent a little green. “This way, you get the taste from skin to core,” he explains. “Green fruit gives more of the skin taste and the acid.” Indeed, a single sip carries the sweet ripeness, muskiness, and even the grainy texture of a perfectly ripe pear. The finish is long and somehow evokes a drive through the countryside, seeing the trees and breathing in the grassy air. The pear bottling is among the only 500 cases of Reisetbauer products imported to the United States annually, including his acclaimed Blue Gin (he found something to do with the wheat after all). Like Gölles schnapps, it can be found in specialty spirits shops, and it is on the menu at Jean-Georges, Eleven Madison Park, and Gramercy Tavern in New York; RN74 and Nopa in San Francisco; and Gjelina in Venice, Calif.  

His classic pear product notwithstanding, Reisetbauer is a bit of a mad scientist. Unlike Gölles, Reisetbauer reaches far beyond his region, using Chinese gingerroot for his ginger eau-de-vie, for example. He is famous for attempting—successfully—carrot eau-de-vie, which tastes like a boozy version of the vegetable (and is used to make a Bloody Mary at the Slanted Door in San Francisco). His orchards include a low-yield variety of plum, developed specifically for him. His apricot eau-de-vie is an obsessive blend of 11 varieties, some grown on his 20 acres, others purchased from friends. It takes 35 pounds of the fruit to make a single liter. “That,” he says, “is why it’s so expensive.”

Three years ago, Reisetbauer had a revelation while cooking marmalade: Low, slow heat produced more nuanced flavors. So he completely redesigned his distilling process, making the second distillation much smaller, slower, and cooler, and built a strikingly modern 17,000-square-foot distillery. He decorated it with contemporary art and designed it with windows and sight lines that allow him take in everything at once, office to orchard. But do not plan on visiting. There is no tasting room. And, Reisetbauer adds, “We don’t sell fruit to other distillers. We stopped. We wanted to be completely different from all other producers in the world.”

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There may be no better place to taste Austrian schnapps than Zum Weissen Rauchfangkehrer, a 167-year-old restaurant in Vienna’s Inner Citywhose decor runs toward rustic pine, trophy stags, and bottle after bottle of obscure spirits. The spirits list, titled Pure Pleasure and bound like a hardback novel, includes more than 700 Austrian schnapps made by 30 producers, few of which are imported to the United States. They are served in more than a dozen different versions of the small, fluted glass specifically designed for schnapps. And manager Michael Schicht will design individual tasting flights, based on flavor preferences and curiosity.

“People say, ‘Recommend something,’ but when you have to choose from 700 of them, made from 60 or 70 different fruits, it’s tough to choose just one and make it the representative of Austrian schnapps,” Schicht says. “They are so extreme in their differences.”

Whether it is made from a traditional fruit such as apple, Williams pear, damson plum, or cherry, or a more exotic variety like serviceberry, rose hips, rowanberry, or orange (“For us, orange is exotic,” Schicht says), fine schnapps should be savored slowly, like a good whisky. First, inhale it with your lips slightly parted, so the aromas can tumble across your palate. Take a small sip and gently move the spirit around your mouth. Open your mouth and breathe out one or two times, “to let the alcohol steam out,” Schicht says. “Then, only when the schnapps covers each part of your mouth, you are allowed to swallow.”

For those who have not sipped schnapps so deliberately (or worse, swallowed it as a shot), the difference will be astonishing: An incredible spectrum of flavors emerges—sweet flesh, astringent skin, woody seeds. Bitter fruits, like the saubirne pear, are transformed into a delicate echo of spring flowers. A lingering taste also allows the differences in production styles to become clearer. For example, schnapps cut with spring water, usually to about 40 percent alcohol, release much more fragrance than those left at 50 to 70 percent alcohol, though higher alcohol styles, such Rochelt’s, tend to yield more concentrated flavor on the palate. 

“Most people drink schnapps much too fast and they just taste alcohol,” Schicht says. “If it takes five minutes to drink a schnapps, you’re drinking it the wrong way.” 

Zum Weissen Rauchfangkehrer (The White Chimney Sweep), +43.1.5123471, weisser-rauchfangkehrer.at 

 

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