Schnaps sometimes seen "anglicised" as "schnapps" is a German term for a small shot of some strong, unsweetened spirit, usually served ice-cold. The German verb schnappen means "to snatch" or "to snap".
Serving schnaps is especially popular in northern European countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and the Baltic countries.
Schnaps are most often drunk at the beginning of a meal, to accompany the strong-tasting and salty dishes served for appetizers, for example at the Scandinavian smörgåsbord and Russian zakuska buffets.
These schnaps are usually neutral-tasting and clear in colour, like vodka, aquavit (Scandinavian caraway-flavoured spirit) and other eaux-de-vie.
Vodka can be mildly flavoured with lemon, honey, pepper, dill, caraway, juniper berries, rowanberries, blackcurrants, birch leaf buds, horseradish or numerous other herbs and spices.
The taste of the flavouring ingredient in the schnaps should be just barely detectable. Schnaps are never sweetened.
The horrible sweetened, candy flavoured strong spirits erroneously termed "schnaps" in countries not familiar with the proper schnaps tradition (eg Britain, the U.S.A., etc) are fortunately not popular in Finland and other countries sharing the old schnaps culture.
Schnaps should always be served well chilled, although some flavoured schnaps are at their best when served less chilled (eg the Hungarian Vilmos Pálinka or some Norwegian aquavits). Schnaps is never served with ice, but the bottle is chilled beforehand in refrigerator or freezer.
In picture on right: Danish akvavit and snaps bottles.
The size of a schnaps glass should be very small, from two centilitres to six centilitres, since the shot is usually drunk "bottoms up". That is not compulsory, however, and especially those not accustomed to the schnaps tradition should consume their drink in small sips.
Unlike in Finland, where the sole purpose of consuming alcohol has traditionally been for the aim of heavy intoxication only, everywhere else it has always been a custom to serve schnaps accompanied by food or snacks. For example in Russia, various zakuski are always served, and one usually takes a bite of dark rye bread, pickled gherkin, etc, after knocking back a schnaps.
High-quality Russian and Polish vodkas tend to be the best choice for schnaps because of their extremely smooth flavour.
In Finland, a favourite schnaps beside the Russian vodkas is the Finnish Koskenkorva Viina.
See easy recipes for making your own flavoured spirits here.