Making schnapps in Slovenia is a winter affair. My car thermometer read -11c as I pulled up at the small farm, somewhere in the distant hinterlands of Koroška.
Ever since I was offered a small glass of the clear, strong, homemade spirit by my neighbour Jaka eleven years ago, I had been keen to see the schnapps making process for myself. Finally, a decade later, that day had come.
I was joining Viktor, Marina and their two (now adult) children – Ana and Martin – (as well as their rather long dog – Robbie), in a nine-hour moonshine making mission.
The day began a little after 9am with a spot of breakfast, which of course included a shot of schnapps, along with tasty cold cuts from the farm, finished off with dark, black Turkish coffee.
The younger contingent of the cooking team – Ana and Martin – spoke excellent English so I was able to explore quite deeply into their lives and the process of the cook. But there were numerous periods throughout the day, where I was with only Viktor or Marina (or Robbie), which provided me with ample opportunity to practise my caveman Slovene.
Let’s Cook! Stage 1
In Slovenia, you don’t ‘make’ schnapps, you ‘cook’ schnapps (kuhati
šnopc). And my hosts had been cooking for the last 10 days straight. The 2018 autumn had produced a particulary fruitful harvest, which meant they had weeks of mash to get through.
Although back in autumn, during Making Schnapps Part 1, I had been plucking plums, today it was a batch of pear schnapps we were making. The mash had been sitting in a barrel fermenting through the winter. Now it was time to cook.
Upon stepping into the barn where the cook was taking place, I was hit by the sweet scent of pear. The first part of the cook was filling the 100 litre still with pear mash. The steel and copper contraption was 40 years old Viktor told me, manufactured by a then Yugoslavian company that no longer existed.
A wood fire was then lit below the copper cauldron, and we sat around the still, enjoying the heat and waiting. Viktor instructed me to feed the fire to ensure it burned hot and fast. A wheelbarrow of well-aged pine fuelled the burn, which popped and spat as it roared in the belly of the still.
It took around an hour for the first drops of distillate to appear. For those who have forgotten their school chemistry lessons, let’s recap. Distillation is the process of separating (in this case) ethanol, from a mixture of liquids.
The process works because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. This means as the mash heats up, alcohol starts evaporating out of the mixture first. The vapour travels up the copper pipe and then down into the cooling coils of the still. These are kept cold by being immersed in a barrel of water, which was kept cool by pumping the water out through a pipe that sat in the snow, before returning back to the barrel.
The cold sides of the coil cause the alcohol vapour to condense into a liquid again, and this then comes dripping out of the condenser pipe and is collected.
The first cook produces something Victor called Meka Rakija.
“In Serbia – they drink it like this. But it is not yet schnapps. It is Meka Rakija. In Slovenia – we make schnapps.”
I was keen to sample the cloudy white liquid and found it to be very palatable. It had a sweet flavour with a tasty note of pear. I requested to capture some of this nectar and was duly given a 500ml Pepsi bottle which I filled. I later measured the alcohol content and found it to be a healthy 30%.
We kept the fire crackling, and as the mash came up to temperature, the flow of the distillate increased, filling several buckets which were then pooled with previous batches.
Before commencing the more delicate second cook – the still was emptied of its now alcohol-less mash, and given a thorough clean-down. I asked Viktor what happened to the steaming barrels of spent pear, wondering if perhaps the pigs would enjoy it. Apparently not. The animals won’t eat it so it ends up in a big compost in the forest.
We retired back to the house for lunch before starting the second cook. A hearty meal of beef goulash and polenta was served. When I asked Marina – the lady of the house – if I could help with anything in the kitchen, she expressed surprise, explaining that men are rarely seen in that part of the house.
Back to the now gleaming copper still, Viktor filled it with the proceeds of previous first cooks. The second cook is a much more careful and controlled stage. Ana and Marina showed me how to keep the fire small but as consistent as possible, burning just one or two small split logs at a time.
We sat in the welcome heat of the still, patiently waiting for the first drops to appear. I am always keen to hear Slovenians’ opinions of life before independence. Do they miss Yugoslavia? Was life better then? Or has independence been good for the people? Viktor’s answer was typical to what I often hear:
“Everyone in the country had a job then; everyone had enough. But then there were many situations where they had five people doing a job that one person could do.
Also – because Yugoslavia strictly controlled imports, it was hard to get certain products that weren’t manufactured inside the country. For example, we had to go to Austria just to get washing detergent and you were supposed to pay import duty if you brought it back into Yugoslavia.
I think Slovenia is better now.”
After a good hour, the first drops of liquid began to appear. Completely clear and colourless, Viktor explained that this was very strong, and for ‘external use only’. In other words – not for drinking.
Here the language barrier here proved to be too much and I was unsure as to whether it was methanol (a much more toxic member of the alcohol family which can cause permanent blindness by destroying the optic nerve if drunk even in small quantities), or just very strong ethanol (common drinking alcohol).
I noted that the first litre of the distillate was collected, bottled and measured (85% alc) but no futher testing was carried out on the rest of the batch. The only test performed was Viktor throwing a shot glass full on to the fire. Apparently, the ferocity of the ensuing flames, allowed him to gauge the alcohol make-up of the liquid.
I assume that even if the rest of the distillate contains some methanol, when mixed with the entire batch, it’s not at a dangerous level. At least that’s what I hope, else my optic nerves are going to get destroyed.
It’s All About The Angle of Dangle
After the first litre of this potentially-optic-nerve-destroying liquid had been taken, Ana explained that we had to keep the spirit flowing from the still, at a low, steady rate. And this was gauged by the angle at which the liquid ran from the pipe.
“The stream should fall exactly vertically” she explained.
At first I was unsure how it could not fall vertically, but as the fire died down, I could see how the steam started to bend back under the pipe. And when more fuel was added, there was an initial spurt where the stream arced away from the pipe. I played with the fuel, trying to keep the perfect stream as instructed.
Following a round of homemade pancakes, my hosts seemed satisfied that I was now a capable enough cook to keep the operation running. They duly left me to keep the fires burning, whilst they disappeared to milk the cows.
At first I felt like Jesse from Breaking Bad when Walter White leaves him to cook his first batch of meth on his own. A pang of responsibly hit me. After all, this was part of their commercial farm operation. This cook was money. Was I going to mess the whole thing up and ruin the entire batch? Would Viktor (aka The Slovenian Heisenberg) ‘disappear’ me?
I paid close attention to what I had learned; keep the flow coming gently. Stop when the liquid becomes milky. Don’t drink it all. As each 10 litre bucket came off, I measured the alcohol content, then added it to the main barrel. Each tier was lower in alcohol than the previous one; 75%, 65%, 40%, 30%. But when mixed together, the overall batch was still well over 60%.
Saying that, we were using an alcoholmeter for the readings. This is a calibrated instrument that looks a bit like a thermometer and is designed to measure the amount of ethanol in a liquid, containing only ethanol and water. As there are numerous other products produced by the distillation process (methanol, oils and higher alcohols) I don’t think the readings we took could be completely accurate but did provide an approximate figure.
As the cook entered its dying stages, Heisenberg returned and instructed me to feed up the fire up again. Squeezing out as much ethanol from the cook was the goal, and that required a roaring fire for the last few litres. For the final hour of the cook, we entered diminishing returns. More heat was required to get what was a weaker and weaker distillate, until finally, the output became a cloudy liquid. The cook was over.
It was after 7pm when I placed the fruits of my labour into my car. Heisenberg seemed satisfied with the cook and had kindly given me two litres of pear schnapps, diluted down to 50% alcohol. It had been an interesting experience. I had learned much and acquired a new appreciation for the hours and energy that went into this fiery liquid, which is to Slovenia, what tea is to Britain; dolled out at any hour to guests.
Finally, 12 years after my first taste of Slovenian schnapps, I had joined the cook. And na zdravje to that.