Schnapps is just schnapps, right? While the peach and peppermint schnapps that is so popular in America may be what you know as schnapps, the word has a different meaning in Germany and other parts of Europe.
One would think that the definition of schnapps is an easy one. Yet, like many of our favorite bar ingredients, the answer to 'What is schnapps?' is a little complicated.
What Is Schnapps?
Schnapps is a type of distilled spirit that has two meanings.
Essentially, true schnapps is made by fermenting fruit juices along with the base liquor. In this sense, schnapps is considered a fruit brandy or eau de vie.
The result of this schnapps process is a stronger and often clear distilled spirit, much like a lightly flavored vodka.
In contrast, schnapps in the United States is often used to describe a category of sweetened, fruit-flavored liqueurs (there are exceptions to the fruit). Instead of distilling the fruit, liqueurs are often made by steeping fruits in alcohol after fermentation and/or distillation.
As we see often with these varieties of schnapps, flavor and color additives are frequently added. That is a step you will not find in authentic schnapps.
The German word for schnapps drops one 'p' and translates into English to mean hard liquor, booze, and the like. Schnaps is used to describe any strong distilled spirit, particularly those of at least 32% ABV (64 proof).
The word also comes with a loose translation of snap, referring to the strength of the spirits.
While schnaps can technically refer to any liquor, it is often used for fruit brandies distilled from fresh fruit juices. These are often called Obstler, or fruit schnaps. Apple, apricot, cherry, pear, and plum are the most popular flavors and many distillers grow their own fruit for their schnaps.
Tip: If you're traveling in Europe and looking for schnaps, you may have to be more specific about what you're looking for because of these double meanings. Obstler will likely be the best bet when seeking fruit brandies. Also, German for fruit is die Frucht or das Obst.
Schnaps is most popular in Germany, where it originated for medicinal uses. Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland are also big on the schnaps. European drinkers rarely mix their schnaps into cocktails, opting instead to enjoy it straight out of the bottle and often before or after a meal.
North American Schnapps
In the United States, schnapps is used to describe a category of liquors that have often been on the lower end of the quality spectrum. There are exceptions and good schnapps can be found at a higher price.
The alcohol content of these schnapps can range from between 15 to 25% ABV (30 to 50 proof) depending on the brand. This is significantly lower than the German definition of schnaps .
Some schnapps use a mix of flavors, others can be considered outlandish, and a few can be very tart, bitter, and not the best to mix with.
Then again, there is some very good schnapps available.
Flavors of Schnapps
Schnapps come in a great variety of flavors and they are fun to use in mixed drinks. Apple, butterscotch, cinnamon, peach, and peppermint are by far the most popular schnapps flavors in the bar.
If you prefer, a liqueur of the same flavor can be used as a substitute for schnapps, but it's important to remember that often (though not always) the liqueur is sweeter. You may have to make some adjustments to the recipe to compensate for this.
Tips for Buying Schnapps
If you're looking for the German equivalent to schnaps in the U.S., seek fruit brandies instead. Many craft distillers are producing excellent bottles of apple, apricot, and other flavored brandy that rival many European schnaps.
Tip: Do be wary of 'brandies' that have sweeteners, these are not true brandies and are instead liqueurs (or closer to the American definition of schnapps).
Many drink recipes that call for schnapps refer to the North American definition. When it comes to those, these brands are the most popular.
- Dr. McGillicuddy
- Hiram Walker
Tip: Even in this category, all schnapps are not created equal and you often get what you pay for. Shop smart and fork over a few extra dollars to improve your drinks.