Food

Across the Table: The master of schnapps, and gin too

Here's the problem: "I'm a wine lover," says Hans Reisetbauer, spreading his hands for emphasis. But he was unlucky enough to be raised in upper Austria, too far north to grow grapes. The son of a farmer, at school he studied agriculture, but normal farming, like wheat or corn, didn't interest him much. So when Reisetbauer took over the family farm, he thought he'd try planting some old varieties of apple trees and selling the fruit. Bad timing: In 1993, his first harvest, the apple crop in Austria was huge and prices were paltry.

The apples were beautiful, though, and a winemaker friend suggested he use them to distill an eau de vie. It was an idea. But Reisetbauer had never been inside a distillery. He read up on the subject in some really old books and that year distilled 100 bottles of apple schnapps.

He must have done something right because when he took his eau de vie to a tasting, his first sale, 12 bottles, was to the sommelier of the most famous restaurant in Austria, Steirecke. "So this was quite the start," he says, laughing, still amazed at his luck. After that, when he went around to sell his bottles, whenever anyone asked who else was selling it, all he had to say was the magic word: "Steirecke."

With that, the demon for quality, now recognized as one of the world's great producers of eaux de vie, had taken his first baby steps.

Reisetbauer's next idea was to plant Williams pear (the same variety as Bartlett) trees. And that schnapps turned out pretty good too, winning tastings and getting enthusiastic reviews. He whips out his smartphone to show me photos of the pears arriving at the distillery. They're picture perfect, yellow with brown freckles and a blush of rose.

Convinced that quality comes from the fruit, Reisetbauer grows most of his own, or has it grown for him. In making schnapps, there's just that one ingredient. Nothing else is added. The pears or rowanberries or plums are simply mashed and fermented for a few days, then distilled twice in copper alembics.

Taste one of his schnapps and you understand his aesthetic: elegant, pure, focused. He's captured the soul of the fruit in a glass. Its fragrance is heightened and the spirit is so intense, even at 42% alcohol, that one tiny sip fills your mouth with flavor.

An astonishing amount of fruit is required for each liter bottle: 25 pounds of pears, 77 pounds of raspberries, 55 pounds of quince or 22 pounds of plums. Small wonder his bottles can cost up to $170, though the range starts at $40.

In addition to his fruit schnapps, he has a couple of wild cards. One is what he calls his crazy ginger, made from 88 pounds of fresh, young ginger he gets from Thailand. The other is his carrot schnapps.

He's making gin too. Not his idea, but after he'd complained about the gin every time he ordered a gin and tonic, his wife challenged him: "Well, why don't you just make your own?"

It took three years of research and 55 iterations of the recipe to come up with his Blue Gin. The juniper leaps out of the glass, but you can also find citrus peel, hops and white pepper — in all, 27 botanicals. In April, Harrods in London picked it as the spirit of the month. Marveling at the honor from the country that elevated gin drinking to a high art, he says, "More than this I cannot do."

irene.virbila@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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