Friday, July 16, 2010

Waidlageist Anyone?



If I asked you which spirit was made by secondarily-distilling a maceration of juniper berries and other botanicals, you would probably answer 'gin.' If I asked you the same question but changed the ingredients to wormwood and other botanicals, you would probably answer 'absinthe.' And if I asked you the same question but changed the ingredients to caraway, there is a good chance you would answer 'aquavit.'

But what if I asked you which spirit was made by secondarily distilling a maceration of chamomile, nutmeg, carnations and other botanicals, would you know what it was? It is called waidlageist.

In Germany, the word 'geist' has a clearly-defined legal meaning as it is applied to liquor.

If you go into Bevmo in West Hollywood, you will find Schladerer Kirschwasser and Schladerer Himbeergeist. In Germany, you may only call your product 'wasser' if it is a primary spirit - meaning that the original fermentation must be from the same material that gives the spirit its flavor. Some things, like raspberries and dry botanicals are difficult to ferment. They are usually macerated in a neutral spirit and then re-distilled. I call this a secondary spirit - but in Germany, the legal word is 'geist.'

So, kirschwasser is a kirsch (cherry) spirit that is distilled from fermented cherries, while himbeergeist is a himbeer (raspberry) spirit that is secondarily-distilled from a maceration of raspberries in neutral spirit. Technically-speaking, gin, absinthe, aquavit and ouzo are all geists, too.

The German word 'schnaps' (with only one 'p') is a word that means 'spirits' in the broad, alcoholic sense of high-proof, unsweetened liquor. Both wassers and geists are schnaps - as is whiskey, technically-speaking.

This is no time to drag down the subject matter with the usually-low-quality, traditionally-high-proof American-style liqueurs called 'schnapps.' Just know that it has to do with market forces from the time of German mass-immigration to the U.S.A.

I have some enziangeist (secondary spirit of macerated gentian) and a few other things. Wacholderbeerengeist (secondary spirit of macerated juniper berries) is available in the U.S.A., where it can be legally marketed as gin, even though it is missing the other botanicals of gin. Juniper geist comes from the northwestern part of Germany, near the Netherlands where gin (its possible descendant) comes from. Doornkat is one brand that is fairly-available. Another wacholderbeerengeist is Schlichte Steinhager, named after the place it is distilled in - Steinhagen.

Sadly, American awareness of, and curiosity for, secondary spirits seems to be limited to gin - with a hesitant nod to absinthe.

In trying to get around the non-distribution of most traditional German geists to America, I have been totally unsuccessful. It frustrates me that there is an entire system of spirits that we Americans are cut off from. Besides waidlageist and enziangeist, there is: bärwurzgeist (bear-root), kümmelgeist (cumin), wildeerengeist (mixed wild berries), and others.

I have written to Penninger (www.penninger.de) in German asking them if they would ship to me. I knew that they would not, but I gave it a try anyway. I have an Alsatian student with family still living in Alsace, so I asked Penninger if there was any shop with their products in that somewhat Germanic part of France. Apparently, these products are just not popular outside of Germany.

I am not giving up. Since I do appreciate gin, absinthe, aquavit and enziangeist, I feel I must have the others, too.

Kind reader, if you know anyone in Germany, or on their way there, with whom arrangements could be made to ship or carry a few bottles, please let me know!

Also, if you have tried any of these hard-to-find spirits, comment on what you thought of them.

4 comments:

  1. Sitting with a glass of Weidla-geist, tonic and dash of angostura bitters. Not too bad but the Weidla-geist has sat in the liquor cabinet for several years since picking it up in an Austrian duty free shop. Not that great, but maybe I don't know how to drink it! By itself total rot gut, on a par with Konyagi.

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  2. I enjoyed the Lusen-Hexe we had while in Bavaria. Wish I had brought back more.

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