Turnip Sunrise Cocktail
"I wouldn't drink three of them," says the creator of the ‘Kraut & Rüben’ Cocktail – but he is nevertheless happy that his experiment was a success.
Among Tirol's many unique distilled drinks, Krautinger schnapps is perhaps the most peculiar one. You either love it or hate it, they say. Most people hate it. But is it possible to create a drinkable summer cocktail from it anyway? We put our trusted bartenders to the challenge – and learned a lot about taste and flavour.
Smells play a very important role in Damir Bušić's life. The 45-year-old Tirolean is convinced that the human brain continuously stores aromas from the moment of birth onwards. That's why Damir Bušić considers the drinks he creates at the Liquid Diary cocktail bar in downtown Innsbruck to be the indirect result of his entire life. And that's why the first thing he does upon arriving at the bar is turn on the ventilation system.
"Guests should be greeted by an aroma when they walk in," says Bušić. The ventilation system is equipped with a diffuser that atomises small amounts of scented Marsala oil in perfectly measured clouds. Notes of resin, tonka bean and vanilla remind Bušić of his time in Hong Kong, where he worked as a head bartender at the exclusive Kee Club a few years ago. The scent is well chosen and – like the bar with its colonial velvet look – seems opulent yet unobtrusive.
Only then does Damir Bušić turn his attention to the slender bottle standing on his bar. He pulls out the cork, pours a sip into a tulip-shaped tasting glass and gives it a quick flick of the wrist. Immediately, an intensely sour smell spreads. As if someone had put a fridge filled with cabbage in the middle of the street at the height of summer and has just opened the door weeks later.
Briefly, there’s a competition of aromas. Exclusive room scent versus cabbage fridge. It’s an unequal battle. Soon the bar smells of the contents of this harmless-looking bottle of Krautinger schnapps. Damir Bušić is supposed to create a drink from it. Krautinger is quite special – even for Tirol, which is not short of peculiar distilled drinks. It is distilled from autumn turnip, which is also called ‘Soachruam’ in Tirol and was a staple food in Europe before potatoes became popular.
Eaten raw, the taste of the turnip is reminiscent of kohlrabi. But it is sweeter, more bitter, with a distinctive hint of mustard in the aftertaste. From a culinary point of view, a questionable starting product for a schnapps. And the reason you usually get your first Krautinger schnapps served by someone with a gleeful look in their eye.
In short, some love it, many more loathe it. And it’s probably safe to say that nobody has ever created a drinkable summer cocktail with it.
Most cocktail recipes are based on a few simple principles: The flavours should go together beautifully, with sweetness and acidity balanced to perfection. You should be able to taste the alcohol, but it shouldn’t dominate. But many cocktails contain another, much more interesting component: an ingredient that you should actually find repulsive because of its taste. Drug researchers speak of learned flavour preferences in this context. We love the bitterness of Vermouth or the ‘peaty’ flavour of Scotch because they remind us vividly of the pleasant feeling of intoxication. A role that Krautinger schnapps, with its unique flavour profile, could fulfil perfectly. Couldn’t it?
How it all started
To investigate this further, we decided to start an experiment and ask some experienced and highly skilled bartenders from different cities to mix a new summer drink starring Krautinger schnapps. Could it become the cocktail ingredient of the decade? Our first stop was probably the most renowned bar in the German-speaking world: Schumann's in Munich. But there, the initial scepticism with which we were met quickly turned into brusque rejection. In between, there was a brief Google search for the flavour of Krautinger schnapps. "That's a stupid idea," was the final verdict.
Respect for it simply demands that we at least give it a try.
We were also turned down at Klaus St. Rainer's Golden Bar in Munich's Haus der Kunst, and we achieved our first partial success at Bar Gabányi. The legendary bartender Stefan Gabányi agreed to give it a try – but then backed down when he tried Krautinger schnapps for the first time.
But then there was the first real promise: "Krautinger is a regional product," said Damir Bušić on the phone. "Respect for it simply demands that we at least give it a try".
Thank you, Empress Maria Theresa!
A cloudless late summer’s day in Wildschönau in Tirol. At the Steinerhof farm near Oberau, the house cat strolls across the courtyard entrance. Everything is quiet. Only one thing disturbs the splendid idyll: Every now and then, a penetrating smell wafts across the farm, pungent and sour.
It’s the autumn turnips that are first washed, then chopped and finally pressed in the old garage behind the house. The juice obtained in this way is the starting product from which Maritta Thaler will distil her Krautinger schnapps today. The 26-year-old is one of the youngest distillers in Wildschönau and is continuing a centuries-old tradition.
The right to distil schnapps from turnips dates back to a decree issued by Empress Maria Theresa in the mid-18th century. Because the cultivation of fruit in the high altitudes of Wildschönau hardly brought any yield, she granted the impoverished farmers a monopoly to produce turnip schnapps. Today, 16 farms still make use of this historic right.
The most modern Krautinger distillery in the world is situated in the old garage of the Steinerhof farm. Only about 2,000 litres of Krautinger schnapps are produced every year.
For a good distillate, the fore-run and after-run must be cleanly separated to obtain the high-quality product.
Maritta Thaler is thrilled when we tell her about our idea for the Krautinger cocktail. She has recently been experimenting with the schnapps herself, storing it in an acacia barrel to refine the taste. Her father Josef, from whom she learned the art of distilling, is more sceptical. "That's just advertising for something we can't supply," he says. In fact, they only distil about 2,000 litres of Krautinger schnapps every year in Wildschönau and the bottles are usually sold out very quickly. In Wildschönau, Krautinger schnapps is more than just a delicacy – it’s also a medicine. The schnapps has almost run out at the Steinerhof farm too. Maritta Thaler can send two small bottles to the Liquid Diary bar in Innsbruck.
There, Damir Bušić, who was named "World Class Bartender Austria" in 2018, starts with a cautious sip – and realises what almost all Krautinger first-timers realise: "It smells different than it tastes". He repeats the process a few times: smells, tastes, smells again. He recognises notes of roasted rye and the sauerkraut his Croatian grandma used to preserve for Christmas. He praises the film the Krautinger leaves on his tongue. Meanwhile, a recipe is forming in his head. Then, he suddenly gets going. He reaches for the homemade beetroot syrup and the hazelnut liqueur, as well as a bottle containing diluted malic and citric acid. "This is less aggressive than lemon or lime juice. It better preserves the flavour," says Bušić. He mixes the ingredients with ice in a shaker, adds a dash of walnut bitters and pours the whole thing into an iced cocktail glass. Finally, a chip of dehydrated chioggia beet as a garnish, and the first attempt is finished. "Not that bad at all," says Bušić after he has tasted it. But he is already shaking his head by the second sip. "My God," he says. "Let's try it with some lemon juice instead."
70 kilometres further east at the Steinerhof farm, Maritta Thaler will be feeling happy and also a bit proud about what is happening right now in the Liquid Diary bar. Because she appreciates a good Krautinger, the herbaceous aroma of the turnip and the mild and oily flavour in the finish. Unlike the ingredients of most fine brandies such as plums, apricots or Williams pears, the humble autumn turnip has a sugar content of only five percent, which is why the turnips are first chopped, pressed and boiled down to achieve the sugar content necessary for fermentation. All kinds of things can go wrong in the process, Maritta Thaler explains. In the past, butyric acid regularly got into the mash, which caused strong off-flavours in the final product. "People always ask me if we still have a real Krautinger," says Maritta Thaler. "Yet people actually mean a failed product." At Steinerhof, for example, they have invested in a modern distillery and are constantly improving the quality of their schnapps.
Old schnapps, new methods. Here, Maritta Thaler, 26, checks the sugar content of the turnip juice with a refractometer.
I probably wouldn't drink three of them either, but I would definitely try it.
Back at the Liquid Diary bar, Damir Bušić replaces the diluted malic and citric acid with lemon juice. Instead of just mixing the ingredients, he puts them in a shaker with ice. "The water added by shaking slightly dilutes the flavour," he explains. But when he tastes the result, he’s still not happy. He adds a drop of cardamom bitters, takes a sip, nods in satisfaction – and names the drink ‘Kraut & Rüben’, which translates to ‘cabbage & turnip’. It has a pleasantly full, earthy taste. Sweetness and acidity are balanced, while the aroma of the Krautinger is contained without being lost. And the otherwise unpleasant smell dissolves into a promising new vanilla note thanks to the cardamom bitters. "I probably wouldn't drink three of them either, but I would definitely try it," says Bušić. How would a non-Tirolean who has never heard of Krautinger schnapps before react? "Without the regional flavour palette," says Bušić, "they’ll have a hard time.”
The 31-year-old Jakob Habel is standing behind the bar at the award-winning Zephyr Bar in Munich, curiously sniffing a glass of Krautinger. His first impression? It smells like the malty sugar beet syrup that his father used to spread on his bread. That's enough. At top speed, he selects ingredients to ‘build’ (his word) the drink in a large mixing glass. Jakob Habel tells us later that he actually studied civil engineering before he decided to become a bartender. After a few minutes, a small, clear drink is on the bar. What’s in it? Gin, Krautinger, Vermouth and Verjus, a sour juice made from unripe grapes. The drink is strong and yet tastes mild. The high alcohol content is a good counterpart to the intense aroma of the Krautinger schnapps. Jakob Habel calls it a “drink for professional drinkers" and is enthusiastic about the "pleasant sauerkraut flavour".
31-year-old Jakob Habel studied civil engineering. He demonstrates his penchant for precise construction at the bar. With the Zephyr Bar, where he has been working since 2019, he has already won several Mixology Bar Awards.
"Krautinger is far from the darkest thing we've experimented with here," says Habel. He talks about a hellishly pungent herbal schnapps made from asparagus that they pickled in gin and failed attempts at fermentation. "We could actually try that too," he says suddenly, digging a tin of pickled carrot slices out of the fridge. He grabs a fresh mixing glass into which he adds gin, Krautinger schnapps, Verjus, sugar syrup and Cocchi Americano, an aperitif wine flavoured with gentian root. Then he adds a few spoonfuls of brine from the carrot tin. The colour of the drink: an almost imperceptible gold. The taste: accessible without being overly sweet and with a slightly bitter note from the gentian root. But the real star suddenly becomes the Krautinger, which takes so much getting used to. In the slightly spicy brine, it finds a complementary ingredient it goes perfectly with. The ‘Karottinger’ (a word formed from carrot & Krautinger), as Jakob Habel calls it, is a sensational drink.
It looks pretty but does it taste good? Theoretically, the combination of Krautinger (sauerkraut) and gin (juniper) should be a winner.
In a world where there are hundreds of gins that often sound as if they were inspired by the shampoo section in the drugstore, Krautinger schnapps with its autumn turnip origin seems wild and old-fashioned. But the Krautinger schnapps, and this is probably the secret of its enduring success, does not bother trying to please everyone. Like no other product, it embodies the Tirolean belief that nothing is given to you in life and that you have to work for what little happiness you have in this world. Every Krautinger schnapps is a little battle, a little courage in a glass. It is this proud anachronism that makes so many people sincerely love it. A good drink, Damir Bušić and Jakob Habel agree, is one that you don’t forget in a hurry. "The story behind the drink is what it’s all about," says Jakob Habel. Seen in this light, Krautinger is probably not the tastiest ingredient for a cocktail, but maybe that’s exactly what makes it the right one.