Adventures with German Schnapps


Photo by warrenski/Flickr CC

As I've noted before, Germans will make schnapps out of just about anything. And not the sort of sickly sweet stuff we're used to in the States--just the pure "spirit" of the distillate, be it pears, apple, berries, or beer.

Or, as I recently discovered, asparagus and garlic.

I was browsing the extensive liquor selection at Kaufhof, a Borg-like box of a department store plopped in the middle of Alexander Platz. A glass case alongside the wine section held a floor-to-ceiling display of long, slender schnapps bottles, all from a producer in Saxony. There was the usual: wild blueberry, check. Apple, check. All of them clear liquids in minimally labelled bottles, which made it easy to overlook the bottle, on the top shelf, that read "Spargel"--that is, asparagus.

I can't say I applaud asparagus schnapps, but I appreciate Germany's obsession with distilling everything they can.

Knowing this could only end badly, I bought a bottle and took it home. The bottle was handsomely sealed in a thick hand-dipped wax casing. For some reason, it came with a spare cork, with an engraved wood cap. Perhaps all of this was to distract the would-be drinker from contemplating the insanity of what he was about to do: drink fermented, distilled asparagus juice.

The diversion didn't last long. Once it was in the glass, the odor of slightly rotten veggies filled the kitchen. I took a closer whiff. Yep, asparagus. The scent took me back to my early childhood, when for neighbors we had a huge family of millenarian Christians who kept an enormous garden and canned its produce obsessively, the better to last through the impending apocalypse. They grew a lot of asparagus, and its vegetal aromas filled an entire corner of their basement.

I wish I could say the flavor was something other than simply more soured asparagus, that fermenting and distilling asparagus juice released a bouquet of rose and chocolate notes. Alas. The upside, though, is the quality: This is one smooth, well-crafted liquor. Germans love asparagus in a way I'm not entirely comfortable with, so I'm sure this is the wine of the gods for many. Thanks, but I'll pass.

What is there to try once you've experienced asparagus schnapps? Near our apartment is Knofel, Berlin's "only" garlic restaurant (I put it in quotes because, when you're a garlic restaurant, do you really need to emphasize your uniqueness?). Let me be clear: Knofel is awesome. You can load up on beer-battered garlic and pickled garlic and garlic chips, garlic chicken and garlic veal and even garlic ice cream.

But I came for the schnapps. The waiter brought it chilled, in an ice-cold shot glass. Points for presentation. It had very little nose, unlike the asparagus, and the taste was barely there--more like a silky, garlicky whisper than a blunt asparagus yell. I also tried out the garlic kräuter, a kind of schnapps made with herbal infusions and sugar (Jägermeister is a brand of kräuter). Fantastic--the garlic was present, but not overpowering, taking its place in an orchestra of flavors.

I can't say I applaud asparagus schnapps, but I appreciate Germany's obsession with distilling everything they can. Yes, there will be misfires. And yes, they will sell it in fancy department stores. But liquor is an adventure. I've probably had my last glass of asparagus schnapps. But should I find a bottle of distilled squash, pass the glass.

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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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