Snow-capped peaks, rushing rivers and brandy to warm the soul

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When winter comes to western Austria and the sun disappears too quickly behind the snow-covered Alps, you can stand in bare orchards and still taste the sun-ripened fruit that the trees once bore: just drink a glass of brandy.

For centuries, farmers in the Tyrol region have crushed, fermented and distilled apples, plums, apricots and other fruits to obtain brandy, a strong liquor most commonly enjoyed as a digestif. Sometimes local herbs and plants are added, such as fruits of the Austrian stone pine.

The more than four million tourists who flock to Tyrolean ski towns like Seefeld and Ischgl will find approximately 4,000 brandy distilleries spread across the region, often within walking distance of the slopes. This elixir not only warms the soul; It also provides a strong dose of deep local tradition.

“When you visit a city, people want to know how we lived in the past, what we eat and drink today,” says Monika Unterholzner, a tour guide. In Austria, especially in the mountains of Tyrol, “schnapps is both,” she said. “It's part of our identity.”

American brandy is usually a grain-based brandy with artificial flavor, but in European brandy, the fruit itself determines the final result, which means that the quality of the ingredients is everything. Distillers seek out the best products or grow them in their own orchards, where they can watch them ripen on the branch.

“The actual process is very simple,” said Alexander Rainer, who runs the Rochelt distillery in Fritzens, east of Innsbruck. “And I think the most beautiful things in life are usually not complicated.”

Rochelt's luxurious brandy-making operation is hidden behind the gates of a modest farmhouse with white and green trim. Inside, the air is thick with the smell of fermented fruit.

The tradition at Rochelt began in the 1970s, when Mr. Rainer's father-in-law, Günter Rochelt, began distilling in his garage as a hobby. Now, Mr. Rainer runs the business with the same warmth instilled in him by her mother-in-law, who had a request from her husband when she opened the distillery.

“If you build your distillery, make sure you have a big kitchen and a big place where you can entertain your friends,” he said, as recounted by Mr. Rainer. “Every weekend I had cooking sessions with friends and drank brandy.”

Visitors drawn to nearby medieval castles, contemporary architecture by artists like Zaha Hadid, and brilliant exhibitions at Swarovski's crystal headquarters can enjoy a tour, tasting, and meal at Rochelt for the affordable price of 60 euros, or around $65, a surprisingly good deal considering that a bottle of Rochelt brandy can cost over $300 in the United States.

As the tour began, I was led into a bright kitchen and handed a glass of water flavored with homemade elderflower syrup. A pot of apricot jam bubbled on the stove, a way to use up fruit left over from making brandy.

Unlike most Tyrolean distilleries, Rochelt does not have its own orchards. Instead, Rainer buys fruit from select producers in the surrounding regions. No matter what the fruit is, it is left to ripen on the vine, then picked by hand, crushed and fermented. The mash then goes to the distillery, where guests can watch it transform into a perfectly clear liquor. Even in the dead of winter, Rainer said, at least one of the four tall copper stills is still working.

After the tour, we enjoyed lunch in a cozy dining room built from reclaimed wood from three 150-year-old farms. The menu included pumpkin soup followed by kaiserschmarrn, a type of scrambled pancake, served with fresh apricot jam. To finish, Mr. Rainer sprinkled apricot brandy over our heads, so that the ripe fruit enveloped all the senses.

The brandy is deeply tasty: when you shake a small tasting glass, the brandy leaves traces on the sides very similar to wine legs. It's also strong: Most varieties are around 150 proof, or about 75 percent alcohol, immediately after distillation. But instead of diluting it with water like most moonshine makers do, Rainer lets the liquor sit in the attic until the alcohol and fruit flavors are more balanced.

In a dimly lit room beneath the rafters, he showed us large glass demijohns lined with wooden shelves and covered only with a thin linen cloth. They sit there untouched until a certain percentage of alcohol evaporates: Rochelt's version of the “angel's share,” or what distillers call the amount of alcohol that disappears while aging in barrels.

Back in the kitchen, workers were busy filling jars with apricot jam, putting a small amount of brandy on top and then lighting them briefly before screwing on the lids, an old-fashioned way of sealing a jar, Rainer said.

On snowy afternoons, the center of Seefeld, a town northwest of Innsbruck famous for cross-country skiing, draws tourists to streets lined with cozy shops and alpine lodge-style hotels. Local breweries and traditional inns serve Tyrolean delicacies such as venison and meatballs. Children race sleds down a small hill nearby.

Several of the area's luxury resorts source their brandy from the Draxl distillery, just across the mighty Inn River from Seefeld. Hubert Draxl oversees the approximately seven and a half acre farm with his wife and his parents. The window of the modern, wood-paneled interior tasting room looks out over the farm and village of Inzing, a postcard view with the church steeple framed between the mountains.

A white cat sped by as Draxl showed off his orchards, walking among 10,000 trees growing plums and six varieties of apples. They formed clear lines down the mountainside, revealing glimpses of the valley between their bare branches.

The distillery offers visitors Tyrolean dishes based on cheese, freshly baked bread and speck, a type of bacon (meal and tasting, 50 euros), but I opted for a brandy tasting. Mr. Draxl pulled elegant glass bottles from a shelf and offered samples.

The idea is that there is spirit for all tastes, said Draxl; You just have to find your favorite one. It can be a classic apple brandy or a rarer variety, such as rowan, the bitter fruit of the mountain ash. The wild berry is not attractive to eat off the vine, but it produces a delicious brandy, in which I tasted notes of oak and marzipan.

No matter what the fruit is, every brandy maker looks for the herzstück, or heart cut, which is the portion of the distilled alcohol that has the best flavors and aromas and is most suitable for drinking.

Like Rainer de Rochelt, Draxl aims to create a warm and welcoming space for visitors and locals to savor their product. “My goal is for people to come away with a little more knowledge, so that when they meet their friends, they can bring them,” Draxl said.

A variety of plum characteristic of the cliffs and crags of the Tyrolean Oberland, one of the few that grow at such a height, gives the area's brandy a unique flavor. Visitors to the resorts in the Ischgl area can try this unusual fruit at a distillery near Landeck.

At JP Kössler, owner Christoph Kössler leads tours of his modern distillery, filled with windows looking out onto a row of precariously perched plum trees and the mountains behind them. The space is larger and more industrial than most in Tyrol: The stills have shiny stainless steel exteriors over traditional copper, and one wall brims with Mr. Kössler's awards and accolades.

Next door, Mr. Kössler had to duck to enter the wood-paneled front room of a centuries-old house where the baroque architect Jakob Prandtauer (the JP in the Kössler logo) was born in the 17th century. We settled down to brandy made with plums from their own garden, while Mr. Kössler prepared drinks. The guided tour and tasting at JP Kössler costs €20 per person.

Kössler began distilling in 1995, a time, he said, when there was a new interest in distilling a quality product rather than simply using leftover fruit to make schnapps. But he made many mistakes before he got it right.

“If you make brandy and you want to make good brandy, you need good fruit,” says Kössler, “and you have to do it very well from a production point of view.”

Most distillers in Tyrol open their doors to curious visitors. The Tyrolean tourist office offers suggestions for schnapps tours on its website, and Tiroler Edelbrand Sommeliers, an association of distillers, lists dozens of schnapps makers and tasting events on its website.

Before visiting a distillery, check their website for hours and instructions on how to book a tasting, usually by contacting the owner or a government-certified guide. Hotels in Tyrol often offer transportation services around the region, but distillery owners are also responsible for arranging transportation. They might even pick you up themselves.

“When a guest comes, you give him a brandy,” says Mrs. Unterholzner, the tour guide. “You receive him with a brandy. And you are proud of the brandy.



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