Groundhog Day is officially over and recent storms have proven the little furry weather rodent right once again. It is a veritable winter wonderland, even as spring rapidly approaches. But there is one thing, one cool season ritual I have not done this season yet, sharing a bottle of schnapps with folks on the ski lift. If you are slicing the fresh snow on American slopes however, a belt of schnapps will be much different than if you were in the Alps, cavorting with Olympic fans this year.
The origin of the word is German and means a clear distillate derived from fermented fruits and grains with no extra sugar added. Basically, it is a form of European moonshine, with the fermented sugars coming from leftover pulp of juiced fruit. Typically made in smaller batches, European schnapps (German), eaux de vies (French) and grappas (Italian, made from the pulp and stems of pressed grapes) are often sold in fancy bottles. The American palette usually finds the tastes raw and harsh but, if you have the patience to acquire an appreciation for fine spirits like Scotch or Cognac, you may be able to appreciate the subtle flavorings and delicate character of a variety of schnapps.
In America, however, liquor companies have co-opted the term schnapps and make what is more like a European cordial, a heavily sweetened neutral grain spirit, flavorings from a cornucopia of sources and the addition of glycerine with gives the spirit a nice smooth, syrupy feel on the tongue. The key difference is that true schnapps are distilled from fruit, while a liqueur or cordial is often a spirit that has flavoring acquired through steeping, or marinating. By technical definition, most American made schnapps are liqueurs and cordials, but most people don't know the difference, and if you try to argue the case with a liquor store employee they may or may not know the difference either.
In recent years, many new brands have come along with many new flavors. While most American cordials labeled schnapps hover between 30 to 40 percent alcohol (60 to 80 proof), some more recent brands are pushing over the 100 proof mark. Some are also quite blatant about the extra sugar, with crystallization of the sugar within encouraged to form in the bottle. With what seems like a new flavor every month--such a large variety of flavors like cinnamon, butterscotch and apple--it has even been spoofed in popular culture. A South Park episode focused on S'more Schnapps in which everyone gets hooked.
You can make your own "American" schnapps in your home using Vodka and whatever flavorings you want. You can add sugar but for a more European flavor you might want to leave it out. Simply start with a decent vodka and add pieces of fruit, peppermint leaves, or citrus peels to the bottle. Leaves may turn brown with time and you may wish to strain them out for aesthetic purposes, but preserved in the high-alcohol environment they usually don't go bad.
Schnapps are the perfect thing to finish a meal with, or even served with strong flavored entrees such as lamb and wild game. They make great flavorings for cooking desserts. I like to experiment and make thyme schnapps from my herb garden or rose schnapps using wild rose hips I have gathered in the mountains. These make wonderful cooking additions to dishes and are fun to sit around the kitchen and try with friends.