When asked to name the signature spirit of Germany, most people from other countries would probably say “Jägermeister”. But while Jägermeister may be the most popular German booze internationally it can hardly be called traditional because it has only been around since the 1930s. And its recent international success is mostly due to clever marketing as a party drink and cocktail ingredient.
Looking at German spirits with a bit more of a history we find a rather distinct north/south divde between distilled grain and fruit spirits. Northern Germany is Korn country where for many centuries rye and wheat have been made into what is essentially vodka distilled to a lower proof. Korn would also qualify as unaged grain whisky under Scottish law as long as also some malted barley is used, which in fact is done in most cases in order to provide the necessary enzymes for sugar formation.
The milder climate in south Germany makes it possible to grow grapes and other fruit to a much larger extent than in the north. This has led to the distillation of a large number of fruit and wine brandies in this region.
But there is another distinctively German spirit that usd to be hugely popular in the past but has become a niche product today: Kartoffelschnaps. Kartoffel means potato, so in principle Kartoffelschnaps is indeed nothing else than potato vodka.
You might think that potato vodka is an eastern European thing, but historically this is not strictly true. The distillation of potatoes in Germany began in the 17th century.
Potatoes as a food crop were introducd in Germany in the 17th century. But it was not until the mid-18th century that potatoes were grown on a larger scale. King Frederic II of Prussia in particular encouraged the cultivation of potatoes by demanding farmers to devote a tenth of their fields to them. At first acceptance was poor, but eventually the farmers learned about the nutritional benefits of the potato, and Prussia – and subsequently all of Germany – became a major potato producer.
In principle potatoes are distilled the same way as fruit. Until the early 19th century the distillation of potatoes was not very popular because the process is not very efficient when done in traditional pot stills. But in 1817 Johann Heinrich Leberecht Pistorius patented a special still that made the distillation of potato mash much easier and cheaper.
The Pistorius still consisted of two connected pot stills and a small rectifier that allowed a distillation to 60% to 80% ABV. It can be regarded as a predecessor of the column still that revolutionised the distillation of whisky. And it was only after Pistorius’ invention that potato distillation came to eastern Europe for making vodka as we know it today.
The introduction of the Pistorius still made the cultivation of potatoes even more popular because farmers could use the pomace as cattle feed and fertiliser. In consequence Kartoffelschnaps experienced a huge boom in Germany that lasted many decades.
In the 19th century thousands of distilleries made Kartoffelschnaps which in consequence became cheaper and cheaper. Farms and also factories even paid a part of the worker’s wages in Kartoffelschnaps. Of course this was not without effect. Alcoholism became rampant to an extent that people spoke of a “Branntweinpest” (brandy plague). Unemployment and poverty were often the consequence, not to speak of the health aspects. For example in Berlin there was one “watering hole” for every 109 inhabitants in 1844. Very much the same development happened in Switzerland.,
As a consequence both Germany and Switzerland introduced an alcohol tax in 1887 (the Swiss tax was uniquely for Kartoffelschnaps). Before that, alcohol was not consequently taxed and often only on a local basis. So the introduction of the alcohol tax was not simply a way of improving the budget but also a measure to fight social and health problems in the society as well as to control agriculture.
The measure proved to be successful. Kartoffelschnaps became significantly more expensive, and alcohol consumption decreased again. But this does not mean that potato distillation came out of fashion. More and more potato distillers switched from making Kartoffelschnaps to industrial alcohol. The turn of the century saw a massive industrial boom, and alcohol was needed for many purposes. Also industrial customers were better prepared to pay the higher prices.
This process went along with a major concentration of the distilling industry, and on top of that alcohol production was heavily regulated during World War One. This resulted in monopoly-like structures of the alcohol industry which eventually led to Germany establishing a state monopoly on alcohol in 1919.
This monopoly is still partially in place today, but it will be abolished completely by 2017 because EU law has largely overridden it. As a result of this it has had to be subsidised instead of generating income. It should be noted that the German alcohol monoply never included prohibitve elements like in Scandinavia or North America where alcohol sales are restricted by government control. In its core the monopoly was about giving the state access to industrial alcohol because it is a very important resource. Potato distillers have actually been quite happy about the monopoly because the government has to buy any alcohol they produce for a fixed price.
To the present day, potatato distillation has been going on on a large scale in Germany, but almost entirely for industrial alcohol. Kartoffelschnaps is still being made in small volumes, it even has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the past years because of its recognition as a product with a long tradition. But it has almost disappeared from the shelves, and apart from some online retailers it is not easy to find.
If you exepct a tasting note for Kartoffelschnaps now, I have to disappoint you. I have never been a fan of vodka or korn, and Kartoffelschnaps is in the same realm. It tends to a bit sweeter and richer than grain-based spirits, but it still is not a drink I’d enjoy.
I do think the story is fascinating, though. It is amazing how an almost forgotten invention such as the Pistorius still can still have an impact on the present.
Picture references: Potatoes: flickr (Nick Saltmarsh) – Pistorius still: Wikipedia