Welcome to the New Era of Eau de Vie

A schnapps expert shares her top five bottles with unexpected flavor profiles from ginger to guava.

By Wanda Mann

Published on May 21, 2024

Forget that cloying fruit brandy you clandestinely sipped from your grandparents’ liquor cabinet. From Austria to Mexico, a new cadre of eau de vie artisans is taking this classic spirit to new heights. Katja Scharnagl has been leading the charge in the United States, introducing drinkers to these captivating brandies from her role as beverage director at Koloman, a Franco-Austrian restaurant in Manhattan. Behind the bar, Scharnagl has curated a list of over 60 eaux de vie from around the world into what she believes is the largest selection of fruit brandies in North America. 

Eau de vie (also known as schnapps) is a rising trend, but Scharnagl’s appreciation runs deeply, stemming from her own Austrian heritage, and memories of her grandfather making apricot schnapps. She’s also drawn to the magic in how the spirit is produced. “Schnapps is the essence of an ingredient, distilled. It’s alchemy—a way of preserving something to make a perfect product.”

Katja Scharnagl at Koloman (Photo: Nick Johnson, Courtesy Koloman)

The traditional distillation process is straightforward: Fresh fruit is fermented, distilled (often twice), diluted to a drinkable proof, then bottled. Historically, it was made from ripe fruits left over from the harvest, which were not always in the most pristine condition. Koloman’s selection showcases only producers who are diligent when it comes to quality. 

“Everybody has their signature fruit,” said Scharnagl. Apples, pears, plums, and peaches are popular choices, but some modern makers are broadening the spectrum with tropical fruits, veggies, and even roots. She singles out Austrian master distiller Hans Reisetbauer, who uses only perfectly ripe and unblemished ingredients in his brandies, as a vanguard in the category. “Only the best fruits lead to the best schnapps,” he explains. This fruit-first approach also means the resulting spirits express the unique aroma and flavor profile of each harvest. Enjoyed neat or in a cocktail, Scharnagl’s top-tier selection is proof that eau de vie can provide an unexpected and elegant drinking experience.

Kate Garber

The purity and intensity of this unusual eau de vie satisfy the palates of even the most fervent ginger fans. Hans Reisetbauer rigorously developed a proprietary technique to convert ginger root starches to sugars, requiring more than 77 pounds of ginger to make just one liter of the seriously bold and spicy spirit.

Kate Garber

New York’s Hudson Valley is an ocean away from Austria, but Reisetbauer’s influence looms large—particularly at the distillery he designed at Branchwater Farms. There, owner Kevin Pike allows his black currant brandies to mature for a year in stainless steel tanks before it is released to the market.

Kate Garber

Barney Wilczak sources the fruit for this spirit from a historic orchard with 1,000 heirloom varieties. Imagine the best apples you’ve ever eaten, multiply that flavor by 1,000, then distill it down to its purest essence. The result is spiced and a little sweet, with a distinct and nuanced apple flavor.

Kate Garber

The late Günter Rochelt began making eaux de vie in his garage in the ’70s; since then, his family has carried on the tradition at their distillery. Ripe apricots grown along the banks of the Danube enliven this version. Scharnagl pours it tableside to show off the stunning green glass cruet inspired by the traditional Tyrolean “pincer bottle.”

Kate Garber

A native of Burgundy, Arnaud Fressonnet chose prickly pear, guava, plantain, and mango for his brandies, a result of a collaboration with fifth-generation Mexican rum destiladores Rommel and Alex Krassel. The trio balances their brandies’ sweetness and acidity with fruits at different stages of ripeness, before fermenting with Champagne yeast.

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