PERHAPS THE WORD schnapps triggers flashbacks to some cloying, viscous peach or butterscotch liqueur downed at a long-ago college rager. But in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France’s Alsace region, there is schnaps, spelled with one “p”—and that’s only the beginning of what sets this drink apart. The word broadly applies to any strong spirit and traditionally means a lush brandy made by fermenting and distilling pounds and pounds of fresh fruit or even vegetables. With several excellent examples of schnaps (aka eau de vie) now available stateside, an enthusiastic bartender may well pour you one soon.
At his eponymous New York restaurant, Alsatian chef Gabriel Kreuther serves schnaps by the ounce from the esteemed, family-run Rochelt distillery in Austria. He particularly likes the Morello cherry and the quince, which he also uses to spike marmalades. Although schnaps is typically savored neat, Julieta Campos, bar manager of the Whistler in Chicago, sometimes enlivens classic Old-Fashioneds and Vieux Carrés with the crisp, ripe apple version made by Berentzen in Germany. At San Diego restaurant Rare Form, an evening might begin with the King Bee, a cocktail of gin, lime, honey and salt with basil eau de vie from California’s own St. George Spirits, founded by German native Jörg Rupf.
On his beverage menu, Austrian Albert Trummer, a partner at the Viennese brasserie Bar Freud in New York, features schnaps by Reisetbauer, another well-regarded Austrian distillery, in flavors ranging from carrot to plum. Mr. Trummer and his son Jakob dream up the drinks; their cocktail of Austrian sparkling wine with homemade elderflower extract and Reisetbauer’s elderberry schaps makes an ideal prelude to a plate of schnitzel.
At Gibson & Luce in the Life Hotel in New York, head bartender Alex Huve favors the eaux de vie from Austria’s venerable Purkhart distillery. He weaves the Williams Pear into a Gibson variation, and the Blume Marillen (apricot) brings floral notes to a ginger and egg-white cocktail. “Schnaps are vibrant on the palate, so you don’t need much for them to shine,” said Mr. Huve. Below, three bottles that deliver several bushels’ worth of lively and intense fruit flavor, sipped straight or mixed into cocktails.
1. Reisetbauer Williams Pear (41.5% ABV; $70)Bright, juicy pears harvested in August and September lend their pure, powerful aroma to this Austrian-made eau de vie. Equally vivacious on the tongue, the fresh rush of fruit brings along with it warm, subdued spice.
2. Susan for President Prune Brandy (43% ABV; $54) This limited-edition fruit brandy from 100% prunes has floral notes that give way to a subtle honeyed finish. It’s made in Chicago, but master distiller and CEO Robert Birnecker fittingly has Austrian roots.
3. Rochelt Morello Cherry (50% ABV; $273) The Morello, a dark-skinned cherry, gives rise to this silky Austrian beauty. Cinnamon and almond accentuate layers of ripe fruit flavor with a balance of sweet and sour.