Handle The Proof: Kirschwasser

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For some reason I love old-school spirits like grappa and kirsch.

Probably has something to do with alcohol content. But I also find the origins and longevity of these things fascinating. Kirsch is a cherry brandy, traditionally distilled from fruit found in the woods of France and southern Germany. You also find it in pubs harboring old-timers through parts of Austria.

Some of the best versions I've had were homemade bottles served at a spot in Salzburg. But I've also suffered through moonshine fruit brandies in eastern Europe.

Legal or not, there's nothing quite like it.

Kirsch generally presents an aroma burning with alcohol, within which you'll discover the fine, delicate traces of ripe cherries on the tree...complete with bark, leaves, stems. It threatens to rough you up.

Yet the flavors can be compelling and complex: a sensation of cherry pomace tumbling across the palate, a prominent woody character, deep (and surprisingly soft) caramel notes. What you won't find is scrunching tart or sweet tastes. Kirsch at its finest is sour cherry, complete with bits of stone, distilled once--maybe twice and poured fresh.

At one time this was a regional spirit, conjured by the people from local ingredients in an era where nothing went to waste. Even today, kirsch makes for a rough, distinct brandy that warms and promises to punish at the same time.

Sounds harsh, but the best are also rather rewarding. The flavors are simple and real and part of a culture. It can seem refined, too--especially if you sip it after dinner by a fire.

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