01 of 03
Kirschwasser: Cherry Eau de Vie
Kirschwasser is one of the most famous eaux de vie from Germany and Switzerland. Also known as "kirsch," it is distilled from fermented sweet cherry mash into a clear liquid with a mean alcohol level of 40%. According to Albert Hauser's Vom Essen und Trinken im alten Zürich, it's been mentioned in literature from as early as the 15th century; an enduring drink that "...helps the poor man to make more song..."
Kirschwasser is often drunk as a digestif or Verdauungsschnaps neat after heavy meals such as Raclette or with dessert. It is sometimes added to coffee or tea and can even be added to hot chocolate. It is an important addition to some cakes such as Black Forest cake and is an ingredient in cheese fondue as well. It is also popular in alcohol-filled chocolate candy.
It is made by fermenting a clean mash, usually with the pits (which can give it a slight almond aroma) of one or more sweet cherry varieties. Any cherry which can be made into jam is eligible for distilling. The most important thing is that the cherry is very ripe, with a high sugar content. The aromas and flavors are distilled with the alcohol, although a one to two-year storage in tanks or crocks can help develop the flavor nuances. Cherries are processed on the day of harvest for the best results.
Most kirschwasser is drunk in the region in which it is produced, although even by the 1800s it was an important export to neighboring countries. While the Black Forest in Germany is the best known for the fiery liquid, the Swiss have many, small-batch distilleries that sell their products regionally and are well worth seeking out when traveling in Europe.
The flavor profile of kirschwasser is not sweet like some brandies but sharper, like grappa or vodka. Cherry aromas flavors predominate and bitter almond from fermenting with the pits sometimes comes through.
In the US, one of the least expensive kirschwasser brands is Hiram Walker. It will also be the easiest to find in almost any liquor store and is mostly good for recipes but less so for drinking. It is sold in 750 ml bottles. Smaller bottles have been widely discontinued. DeKuyper also sells kirschwasser-flavored brandy and Leroux and Arrow also carry inexpensive bottles.
Schladerer Brandy Kirschwasser Cherry 84 is made in the Black Forest in Germany and is a much better product for straight sipping.
02 of 03
Himbeergeist: Raspberry Schnapps
Unlike kirsch, which is a fruit brandy, or schnapps, fermented from fruit pulp, himbeergeist is an Obstgeist, a neutral spirit infused with raspberry through maceration and then distilled a second time (Feinbrand) whereby several temperature fractionations leave all solids and color behind. This is necessary due to the low sugar content of raspberries, as they would make very little alcohol if they were fermented on their own. Himbeergeist has a mean alcohol content of 40%.
There is a himbeerwasser product made by Clear Creek Distillery which makes a raspberry brandy by fermenting the raspberries called framboise. According to specialists, 100 kg of raspberries are needed for two to three liters of brandy.
Himbeergeist is not sweet. It has aromas and flavors of the berries used, but a shorter finish than the brandies. It can be drunk neat, out of small glasses, or used to spike various fruit and cream desserts. You can also stir it into marmalade before filling the jars.
03 of 03
Zwetchgenwasser: Plum Brandy
Produced primarily in Baden-Württemberg (southwest Germany) and the Allgäu, the production of Zwetschgenwasser creates a secondary market for fruit and keeps fallen fruit from being wasted.
It is made from fermented house or Italian plums (Prunus domestica subsp. domestica) which are held in casks for weeks to months before being double distilled. It is fairly easy to make and therefore often made in hobby stills.
The brandy is clear and colorless. It is kept in a carboy or tank to age, thereby reducing some of its bite. Some of the best Zwetschgenwasser is aged for years before being drunk. After aging, it is cut with water to a 40% alcohol level.
Zwetschgenwasser is drunk neat at room temperature or slightly cooler. It is not sweet.