What Is Schnapps?

Production, Types, and Recipes

Shot glass and bottles in front of open fire
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Schnapps is a type of distilled spirit, though the name refers to two totally different styles of liquor. Originating in Germany, real schnaps (spelled with just one "p") are made by fermenting fruit juices and the base liquor. These are fruit brandies, or eau de vie, and a strong, often clear, distilled spirit, much like a lightly-flavored vodka. Schnapps in North America, on the other hand, describes a category of sweetened liqueurs ranging in flavor from fruits like apples to butterscotch, peppermint, and root beer. Both styles come in various flavors, and European schnapps are often drunk straight, while North American schnapps are best reserved for mixed drinks.

Fast Facts

Ingredients: Neutral grain spirit, fruit or fruit syrup, spices, or other flavors

Proof: 30–40

ABV%: 15–20%

Calories in a 1 1/2-ounce shot: 76—195

Origin: Germany

Taste: Sweet or semi-dry, fruity

Serve: straight, cocktails, shots

What Is Schnapps Made From?

An illustration comparing American and European Schnapps
 The Spruce / Colleen Tighe

In Europe, schnaps can describe any strong distilled spirit, particularly those of at least 32 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 64 proof). However, the schnaps label is most often used for unaged fruit brandies (or obstler) fermented and distilled from fresh fruit juices. Some, such as the raspberry-flavored himbeergeist, are made with a fruit infusion that's introduced to a neutral grain spirit during the second distillation.

Schnaps is most prevalent in Germany, where it originated for medicinal uses, though it's also commonly enjoyed in Austria, Denmark, and Sweden. The German word "schnaps" translates into English to mean hard liquor or booze, and has a loose translation of "snap," referring to the strength of the spirits.

While a few craft distillers in the U.S. make true schnaps, most North American-style schnapps tend to be much sweeter. Popularly made in both the U.S. and Canada, this type of schnapps is often made by mixing neutral grain spirit with fruit syrup, spices, or other flavors. While rye and wheat are most common, the grain could also be barley, buckwheat, or oats.

The European style of schnaps tends to be well-crafted 80-proof liquors that are comparable to other brandies. North American schnapps, however, are often on the lower end of the quality spectrum and seen by some as novelty liqueurs. Of course, there are exceptions, and you can find good schnapps at a higher price.

The alcohol content of schnapps can range between 15 and 25 percent ABV (30 to 50 proof), depending on the brand. Peppermint schnapps, and some other flavors, can be very strong, and you'll find bottles that are up to 50 percent ABV (100 proof). Always read the label when buying schnapps.

What Does Schnapps Taste Like?

Schnapps comes in a wide variety of flavors. European schnaps tastes like other fruit brandies, offering an authentic fruit taste against a rather strong alcohol background. It tends to be somewhat dry and has a clean finish. While sweeter than European schnaps, North American schnapps is often drier than other sweet liqueurs. For example, peppermint schnapps is not as sweet as crème de menthe. And yet, apple schnapps is known to be rather sweet with a tart fruit flavor that will make your mouth pucker.

Flavors

Some schnapps flavors are found in both European and North American schnapps, though the taste is often very different.

In Europe, fruit schnaps like apple, apricot (marillenschnaps), cherry (kirschwasser, or kirsh), pear, and plum (zwetschgenwasser) are the most popular flavors. Obstwasser is a fruit brandy made from both apples and pears, while apfelkorn is a sweetened apple schnapps created by Berentzen in the 1970s. Sometimes, herbal spirits like Underberg and Jägermeister are also classified as schnaps.

In North America, apple, banana, butterscotch, cinnamon, peach, and peppermint schnapps are the most common flavors. You'll also find apricot, blackberry, cherry, grape, lemon, melon, and root beer schnapps.

How to Drink Schnapps

European drinkers rarely mix their schnaps into cocktails. Instead, they're often enjoyed straight in a small cordial glass before or after a meal. Pouring schnaps over ice is an excellent option as well.

The liqueur-type of schnapps is so sweet that it's best in mixed drink or shot recipes where the liqueur acts as both a flavoring ingredient and sweetener. Some flavors, including butterscotch, cinnamon, and cinnamon, are enjoyable straight and at room temperature, especially on cold days when you want a warm-up shot.

If you prefer, a liqueur of the same flavor can be used as a substitute for schnapps (e.g., cherry liqueur instead of cherry schnapps). Keep in mind that the liqueur may be sweeter than the schnapps (or vice versa), so you may have to adjust the drink's sweetener to maintain a balance of flavor.

Cocktail Recipes

Due to the flavor variety, you'll find that some schnapps flavors go better with certain types of drinks. For instance, apple schnapps often has a tart bite and is a favorite for apple martinis, while the sweet taste of butterscotch schnapps is best in yummy drinks like caramel Irish coffee. At the same time, peach schnapps is very versatile and the most popular peach liqueur found in drink recipes.

Popular Brands

Many drink recipes that call for schnapps refer to the North American version. When it comes to those, these brands are the most popular:

  • 99
  • Arrow
  • DeKuyper
  • Dr. McGillicuddy
  • Hiram Walker

Where to Buy Schnapps

Historically, the market for real schnaps in the U.S. has not been great, though there is an increased interest in it. If you're looking for the German equivalent to schnaps in the U.S., seek out fruit brandies. Many craft distillers are producing excellent bottles of apple, apricot, and other flavored brandy that rival European schnaps.

Do be wary of brandies that have sweeteners; these are not true brandies and are instead liqueurs. They are closer to the North American definition of schnapps, which is sold at most liquor stores. Even in this category, all schnapps are not created equal, and you often get what you pay for in terms of quality. Shop smart and spend a few extra dollars to improve your drinks.