Schnaps Tasting on the Shores of Wolfangsee
Travel writer Katie Jackson can count Crystal Esprit’s inaugural season and Crystal Serenity’s maiden Northwest Passage sailing among her extensive world travels. Now, she completes her Crystal sailing portfolio aboard Crystal Mozart, sharing her experiences along the Danube as she explores Europe aboard this beautiful river yacht. All images courtesy of Katie Jackson.
The Drink Shop doesn’t define “schnapps” by its ingredients. No, according to the authority on alcohol, “schnapps is the generic term for all spirits that warm you up and make you feel good.”
By the time our van’s tires were crunching over Distillery Primushausl’s gravel drive, I was already feeling good. Crystal Mozart had docked at Linz the night before, and by 9 a.m. we’d boarded a coach bound for Austria’s mountain lakes district. Within minutes, I’d met my scenery quota for the day. Imagine a rock-eating giant took random bites out of the Alps and you have the sporadically-carved hunks of mountain surrounding and separating alpine lakes. Their shores were dotted with chalets straight out of The Sound of Music.
Look good, feel good? It looked good. I felt good.
I was, however, in need of something to warm me up. The sun was on sabbatical and clouds that were supposed to be insulating us were now leaking rain. Cool mountain air accosted us as the van door slid open. But, it was accompanied by the warmth of a woman standing there, clearly waiting for us.
“Come to me,” beckoned the striking blonde. Her broken English was delivered under the weight of a heavy German accent. She was dressed in black and red, her lipstick matching her blouse so perfectly I wondered which came first. But, it was her iridescent blue eyes that had the strongest gravitational pull. They made the dark blue of nearby Lake Wolfgangsee seem dull, at best.
The eleven of us—a mix of American, Austrian and Swiss travelers—followed her, past the property’s three-story, 17th Century lodge, toward the tasting room. Along the way, the woman stopped in front of a flowering tree. Its branches snaked outward and upward like Medusa’s mythical locks. Pointing at the tree, she said something in German. Our Austrian tour guide, Brigitte, translated.
“She says they grow seven varieties of pear on this one tree.”
“They” were the Reiger Family. For nearly 40 years they’d been fermenting fruit, distilling the mash and bottling more than 40 varieties of schnaps. In Germany and Austria, where schnaps were first created, the spelling is with one “p” and the alcohol content nearly doubles what we find in our artificially-enhanced American schnapps.
As we filed into the tasting room—a smaller log building with bird nests cradled in cobwebbed corners of exposed beams and wild animal busts and bodies adorning a wall illuminated by an antler chandelier—we got our first glimpse of Mr. Reiger. He was a compact, bearded man, hustling back and forth between two walls covered in shelves covered with schnaps. Since he was busy making a sale to several German-speaking customers, his wife introduced him to Brigitte who then introduced him to us.
“Long ago, he realized he had to decide if he wanted to make schnaps for pleasure, or for business.” Thirty-eight years later, he’s realizing he can make schnaps for both. In fact, the Reigers’ son is now a partner in the family’s award-winning line, Primuhausl. It’s thanks to Mr. Reiger Jr. that the line boasts more inventive flavors like choco-chile and piña colada. Of course, the traditional apricot—what Austria is best known for—was the fan favorite at our table.
The always-animated Mrs. Reiger would grab a bottle, hold it up like a kindergartner at show-and-tell and begin to describe its contents, in German. Some fruits and spices—rosmarin, koriander and apfel—were easy to decipher. For one bottle, she even reached into a drawer at the end of the table and pulled out a pinecone—not the first ingredient that comes to mind when you think of schnaps. After generously pouring everyone an inch from the featured bottle, she’d instruct us to smell the liquid in our glasses, swishing it around like wine. Then it was bottoms up and “mmm, that’s really good” or in the case of the one that tasted like absinthe, reaching for the spit cup.
In all, we tasted seven schnaps. Normally the tasting includes six, but since it was Easter Weekend, Mrs. Reiger treated us to a bonus bottle.
“It’s medicine,” she said, via Brigitte. “My 96-year-old mother has drunk schnaps all her life and she’s still in good health.” Clearly, Mrs. Reiger, who flitted about like the Schnaps Fairy, one hand always wielding an ever-changing bottle wand, was in great physical health. She was a German-speaking Carol Brady who knew she could hand her children—most married, all of drinking age—back to Crystal Mozart’s crew after an hour of tasting.
While I attempted to count the piles of gold medals—all for spirits competitions—in the corner, my mom purchased a bottle of choko-chile for 19 euro. A Swiss couple in our group took some more convincing before they were on board with this particular flavor. Still, as soon as Mrs. Reiger produced a bar of Vahlrona chocolate—one of the schnaps’ primary ingredients—they were sold.
“Leave it to the Swiss contingent to ask what brand of chocolate is used,” said an amused Brigitte.
From chocolate to fruit, Primuhausl uses only the most premium ingredients. All of its fruit schnaps are made with native Austrian fruits, and they don’t include any added sugar. Apple mash is usually the base, and it takes nearly five pounds of fruit to produce one liter of schnaps. When the liquid first comes out of the distillation machine, the alcohol content is about 80 percent so water is added to dilute it down to a more tolerable 40 proof.
Still, after seven shots of schnaps, we probably had no business navigating the mountain roads back to the motorway which would lead us back to Crystal Mozart. Fortunately, we had our sober, silent van driver. Even, Brigitte—a tour guide who subscribed to the let’s-make-a-long-story longer philosophy—didn’t say a word for the hour’s drive back to Linz. Within minutes, all of us had nodded off. We were happy. We were warm. And we were dreaming in different languages.
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