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Schnapps is a term broadly used for a variety of strong alcoholic drinks across Europe and North America. Its roots lie deep in the history of European distilling traditions, primarily in Germany and other German-speaking regions like Austria and Switzerland. The word derives from the German word "Schnaps," meaning "swallow," which hints at the drink's strong and potent nature.

Schnapps originated in the late Middle Ages in Germanic regions. As distillation methods improved, farmers and small-scale producers could put excess fruit to good use, to make spirits. In each region, distinctive recipes and flavours developed which were brought to a wider audience when German immigrants travelled to North America in the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing their schnapps-making traditions with them and further evolving the drink's regional variations.

This led to a schnapps split, with the word referring to two different distinct styles. In Europe, schnapps refers to clear fruit brandies typically made in countries like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland from apples, pears, plums, or cherries. Whereas in the U.S., schnapps has come to represent a sweeter, often artificially flavoured spirit similar to liqueur, with popular flavours like peppermint, butterscotch, and peach.

The production of schnapps in its traditional form entails fermenting fresh fruits with natural or cultivated yeast. This creates a ‘mash’, a low-ABV spirit (6-8%) that is then distilled, once or twice, to create a high-proof, clear spirit with a natural fruit flavour. Some schnapps are aged briefly in glass or stainless steel to allow the flavours to mellow, with oak barrels used on occasion to add complexity. For the American style of schnapps, flavouring like cinnamon or peppermint extracts are added.

These sweeter, flavoured schnapps are often used in cocktails, like peach schnapps in the Fuzzy Navel. But in Europe, schnapps retain the natural flavours of the fruit it's made from and so are traditionally consumed neat, served in small, tulip-shaped glasses at room temperature. It is often drunk before or after meals as a digestive aid or during social gatherings, with "schnapps" referring to a small shot.

Famous European varieties of schnapps include pear schnapps (called "Williamsbirne” and made from Williams pears) and plum schnapps (often referred to as "Zwetschgenwasser"). Some notable examples you’ll be familiar with are Archers Peach Schnapps, Goldschläger Cinnamon Schnapps, Messer Schmitt Herbal Schnapps, and the ranges produced by Berentzen and Teichenné.

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