You can’t go to Vienna, or anywhere in Austria for that matter, without seeing people enjoying Schnaps*. Schnaps is a strong spirit, usually from fruit such as apricot, pear, cherries or plum. In Austria, Schnaps is defined as distilled fruit brandy, similar to French calvados (made from apples). Most of them are around 35–42% ABV.
The distillers use only freshly ripe fruits and berries with no added sugars or artificial flavourings. Often the fruit used doesn’t taste that great on its own, but when it is distilled into Schnaps the flavour becomes more caramelised and sweet, bringing out the best in the fruit. This is how you know you are drinking the real deal.
Unfortunately, like with grappa, you can come across mass-produced Schnapps, which are made from flavourings and added sugar rather than real fruit. Tourists tend to go for these, especially when the prices are much lower. Nowadays, Schnaps is a commonly used word and therefore the quality and artisanal methods of the drink are easily forgotten.
Some of the top-quality brands to try are Reisetbauer and Rochelt.
Schnaps is very intense on flavour, therefore I would recommend serving it slightly chilled as an appetiser or an after-dinner drink. It also gives a nice extra kick to fruity cocktails.
Stroh, an Austrian rum, also known as ‘the spirit of Austria’, is often enjoyed neat or in a hot drink. Some of the variations are actually too strong to be served neat – such as Stroh 60 and Stroh 80. The recipe is a secret, but we do know there is no sugarcane in Austria yet it’s 100% Austrian. Different essences and aromas are combined to create “Inländer Rum” – Stroh is trademarked as an Austrian speciality.
I travelled to Vienna to visit some of their bars and to learn more about their drinking culture. Vienna is such a beautiful city, with great architecture and amazing parks – I can’t wait to go back!
Schnaps and shots are definitely popular – you see girls drinking them straight from miniature bottles or tourists having vodka shots whilst scanning through the local markets. Miniature liqueur and brandy bottles are sold in most drink and tourist shops, but keep in mind some of these might not be good quality Schnaps, as explained above. Some of the spirit and wine shops have got seating inside for you to enjoy a drink after shopping or to sample the produce before buying. I did notice, however, that most craft spirits are still fairly expensive compared to some of the mainstream brands. That might be the reason why only a limited range of spirits is offered in certain bars and restaurants.
It is still common to see G&T on the menu with one specific gin rather than the option to choose what you prefer. Therefore it is a good idea to research the bar scene if you are after something more specific. Don’t get me wrong, there are several venues that have a wider selection of drinks, some even offer hundreds of different whiskies, rums, gins, vodkas and tequilas. In fact, Vienna has a restaurant, Landstein, with the biggest drink collection (incl. wines, beers and spirits) in Austria.
Austria produces excellent wines therefore you can expect a lot of local wines in Vienna. They are also big beer drinkers. Despite this, spirits are making their way into the bars and shops. You can even find gin made in the city (Wien Gin).
When it comes to their customer service you can expect fast and efficient service, but forget about smiles and there’s no small talk, it’s all about speedy service. The etiquette is to take a seat and the staff will bring you the drink and food menu as well as take your order. It is considered rather strange to order at the bar. A tip is often expected as a result of the waiter service. Unlike in the UK, groups of people can pay the bill separately; it is no hassle.
To my surprise, smoking is still normal in Viennese bars and restaurants, and rather than having specific areas or rooms for smokers, the non-smokers are guided into basement floors or into a corner at the back of the venue. As an ex-smoker, I didn’t think the smoking would bother me much, but when you actually spend time inside, you realise how much of a difference it makes. I found that early evenings were the best time to visit most bars as they weren’t yet full of smokers. Obviously in the summer months it does get easier, as the Viennese love to spend time outdoors and most bars have plenty of seating outside and blankets are available.
I visited First American Bar as they have a fairly impressive collection of whiskies and rums, although the locals visit there mainly for the cocktails. It is debatable whether the cocktails are actually any good. Unfortunately, I found First American Bar too dark and smoky, and the music was all wrong. There’s another bar called Club Barfly’s with an even bigger selection of whiskies and rum – currently around 1,000 whiskies and hundreds of rums. The bar looks very similar to First American Bar but has a more Cuban feel to it. And as you can smoke inside there’re also cigars available. They have 500 cocktails on the menu, so plenty to choose from.
If you like pisco, check out the bar called Pisco Latinbar for their impressive variations of pisco sours and other pisco-based cocktails. The venue is very basic but the service was great and the cocktails were tasty.
Visit KIX if you like G&Ts. They have around 30 different gin and tonic combos to choose from, and a few Austrian gins are also available. Each one has a different garnish and they are using three different tonics – Fever Tree, Fentimans and Thomas Henry (from Berlin). If you get peckish they do excellent potato wedges and tasty burgers! The bar is designed by Austrian artist and architect Oskar Putz. The bright-coloured walls can be a bit too much at first, but when the evening comes and the lighting changes, it all makes a bit more sense – or maybe it was the drinks that helped!
Due to its location, in Austria they have great access to Italian grappa, including the likes of Nonino, and I was pleased to notice they serve it in most places, especially cafes and restaurants. It is not uncommon to go to a coffee house for a strudel and café corretto (coffee with grappa) or enjoy a tea with rum on the side. Some of the cafes turn into bars at night.
One of the best things you can do in Vienna is to visit the lovely markets. Naschmarket is probably the most popular. On Saturdays they have flea markets on, which is especially good for vintage glassware! There are many restaurants and bars at the market, and small food stalls sell vodka shots with snack food. If the market is not enough, there are bars nearby, Eberts cocktail bar, for example. At Eberts you can relax and admire their spirit collection whilst sipping a delicious cocktail. On a sunny day, I recommend buying lovely food, Schnaps and other drinks from the market and making your way into one of the parks.
Overall, Vienna is a lovely city, one of my favourite cities, in fact. The locals like to drink and the variety of bars and coffee houses is great. I am confident the bar scene will keep growing and they will have more craft spirits available, and, hopefully, the smoking ban will reach Vienna at some stage! The seasons affect the drinking culture, especially in spring when outside seating areas will turn up in the most beautiful places. Prost!
*I used schnaps with one “p” as schnapps is often considered as the sugary, mass-produced alternative
Pisco Latinbar – Seilerstatte 10
First American Bar – Schulerstrasse 16
Eberts – Gumpendorfer Str. 51
Club Barfly’s – Esterhazygasse 33
KIX – Backerstrasse 4