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As a category of drink, schnapps has an old-fashioned, slightly cheesy image tied up with winter sports. Peppermint schnapps is the kind of candy-flavored drink that someone young and unsophisticated would drink in the belief that more sophisticated people drink it apres-ski. Dean Martin would pour two of them in hopes of seducing Elke Sommer in a Matt Helm movie or something.
But the name "schnapps" really just means any fruit brandy—that is, a distilled beverage that started with fruit. And, as Charlie Solberg discovered when he went to Austria to play hockey, in Europe fruit brandies are not only respectable beverages, they're an important part of life in Austrian communities, with a communal distillery available for use by anyone in the area as part of the fabric of life during the harvest season.
That's what led Solberg and his daughter Jenny to try to re-create that spirit of communal distilling with Rhine Hall Distillery, which opened just west of the West Loop in 2013. Solberg, a native of the Chicago area who played hockey for Dartmouth, was recruited after college to play professionally in Europe; Rhine Hall was the name of the rink where his team played, and, according to Jenny, "That region of Austria was the most abundant region for apples, pears, and all sorts of produce. The locals just had a smaller version of the still that we have, same supplier and everything, but it was called a community still. Basically all of the community would throw their fruit into it and make their schnapps, what we call brandy."
With time on his hands he learned the trade from locals he called "the schnapps professors." When he returned to the U.S. he continued making fruit brandies at home. Often fruit brandies are made by simply adding fruit flavors to neutral spirits, but the Solbergs make them the traditional way. "Ours is 100 percent from fruit, no added neutral spirits or sugars," Jenny says.
The proof of that is a device that's proudly displayed but no longer in use in the distillery: a contraption in which bicycle power is used to crush apples and extract the juice. With a few obvious exceptions (like the mangoes in their recently released mango brandy), Jenny says, "we get all our produce from the Great Lakes region, all of our apples are from Michigan right now. Michigan has so much to offer, and Wisconsin and even in Indiana. We get apples year-round, and we make grappa from the leftover pomace [remains of pressed grapes] from winemaking in this region, though most of their grapes are from California. We're moving into a bunch of exciting things right now, like cherries."
Besides using produce from this region, they also aim for sustainability in their own operation; after they've gotten everything they can from their crushed fruit, it goes to local urban farms for compost.
At the moment they have about half a dozen products, including oaked variations of the grappa and the apple brandy, the latter of which Jenny compares to Calvados. Which leads to the tasting room. "We knew going into it that fruit brandies are not as common as whiskies, vodkas, or gins," says Jenny. "That's why this tasting room is very important, to introduce people to the spirit and how it's made, but also the cultural side of it, and learn the applications of it with some cocktails that you can try."
The tasting room is like a simpler, stripped-down version of the one at CH Distillery a mile or so east, which I wrote about recently. You have a bar looking straight into the copper machinery of the distillery; the only decoration in the room itself is a large wall painting by one of Jenny's sisters. The tasting room is open Thursdays and Saturdays, offering a menu of flights of the brandies, some cocktails, and some cheeses to nibble on.
According to Jenny, the reaction from the restaurant and bar community to their products has been good: "Everyone's been very positive, there's a lot of talent in Chicago and I think they appreciate what we're doing, and they're excited by quality products."