Loving and Not Loving Schnapps

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Photo by Allerina and Glen MacLarty/ Flickr CC

Among the many, many pleasures of living in Europe, I'd have to put schnapps at the top of my list. Of course, schnapps are available the world over. But only in Europe can you regularly find a range of inexpensive aperitifs and digestifs on almost every menu.

I love schnapps -- and here I mean German schnapps, not the PGA-plus-fruit-flavoring you find in the United States. I'm not a connoisseur; I have no idea what makes for a truly sublime grappa or which is the best brand of Marillenschnaps (apricot). I do, however, have standards: It has to be pure, so no coloring or sugar added. It can be aged, but it should be clear, or only lightly tinted; otherwise we're looking at fruit brandy.

Which is why, poking around the Munich airport recently, my eyes seized on a bottle of König Ludwig Bierbrand. Though not a true schnapps -- it's made with beer, not fruit -- it was similar enough, and strange enough, to draw my attention. In this case, the Lantenhammer Destillerie, located in Schliersee, Bavaria (about an hour southeast of Munich), has distilled König Ludwig Dunkelbier, then aged it a bit in oak barrels. Who would've thought?

It has to be pure, no coloring or sugar added. It can be aged, but it should be clear; otherwise we're looking at fruit brandy.

The operative question, though, is why? As anyone who's done hard time will attest, you can distill anything. But with all the options, why beer? Because the result is not at all pleasant. König Ludwig is a good beer, but it's hard to discern quality from its distillation. It has a hint of sweetness, but the character of the beer is gone, leaving behind just a gustatory shadow, with a horrible aftertaste -- like a generic light beer, but with a heavy alcohol burn. König Ludwig isn't the only Bierbrand out there, so the style must have its followers. Maybe I just don't love schnapps as much as I thought I did.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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