For experienced skiers who in seasons past downed shots of syrupy, fluorescent-coloured liqueur high up in the Alps, the thought of knocking back schnapps can bring back unseemly memories. But the spirits distilled by Alexander Rainer at Austria’s Rochelt distillery are remarkably sophisticated. Already available in most of Austria’s best restaurants,the drink is now also served in the likes of Anne-Sophie Pic’s Maison Pic in France and Le Bernardin in New York, both of which have three Michelin stars.
Alexander Rainer’s life in spirits began by chance. The distillery was founded in 1989 by his father-in-law, Günter Rochelt, who had decided he’d had enough of low-quality schnapps and started distilling a more refined fruit brandy for himself. When he died in 2009, Rainer took over; he now runs the distillery with his wife Annia and her sisters, Julia and Teresa.
The distinctive Rochelt bottle CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER
Rainer looks throughout Austria for the best possible fruit, and makes use of Carpathian raspberries, Gravenstein apples from Styria, Wachau apricots and elegant gewürztraminer grapes from Burgenländ. He is present for the harvesting of the fruits, and explains that timing is everything. “Every year it starts with picking the right fruit at the right time,” says Rainer. “In fact, we don’t pick the fruit from the trees but instead wait until it falls off – that’s when it has the most perfect, ripe, intense and mature flavour.”
In the town of Fritzens, about 15 minutes from Innsbruck, the Rochelt distillery has just three copper stills. Rainer oversees a brewing process that is time-consuming, low on technical interference and scrupulously focused on quality. Nothing is added to the fruit and no filtration system is used. From juicy Williams pears to tart morello cherries, some 20 kinds of fruit are boiled then liquefied through a cooling system, creating crystal-clear eaux de vie; inferior blends are discarded.
The spirits are stored for up to 10 years, if that’s how long it takes for them to reach their optimum flavour CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER
After the distillation process, the spirits rest in huge 50-litre glass balloons beneath the wooden roof of the distillery, where they can remain for up to 10 years if that’s how long it takes for them to reach optimal quality, the appropriate taste and, says Rainer, the correct “attitude”. Having invested such care and time in the schnapps’ production, he’s also clear on how the drink is best enjoyed: it should be drunk from a 2cl glass, but never in one gulp; the refined, fruity finish should be savoured in small sips. Drinkers should anticipate a stronger alcoholic hit too. Standard schnapps comes in at about 25 per cent; Rocheltis never less than 50 per cent.
The distillery in Fri9tzens near Innsbruck CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER
Presentation is important. Rainer has continued the tradition of packaging Rochelt schnapps in emerald-green bottles. These are inspired by traditional Tyrolean Zangenflaschen, a type of glassware that has been made in the nearby town of Hall for more than 250 years. The handmade bottle stoppers are equally distinctive, and highly collectable, with different shapes allocated to different blends. For Rainer, that clear commitment to design provides another very visible indicator that Rochelt’s spirits are a world apart from the sickly schnapps of our youth.
Visitors are welcome at the distillery, where guided tours are available by appointment and a small shop sells the full range of Rochelt products; 35ml bottles of Rochelt cost from €100 (£89); the very best blends cancost over €1,000. Rochelt, Innstraße 2, Fritzens, Austria (0043 5224 52462; rochelt.com).
Open Mondays to Thursdays, 8am-5pm; Fridays, 8am-2pm. Closed on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays.