Kirsch, also called Kirschwasser, is a dry, colorless fruit brandy distilled from morello cherries. Made in the Black Forest of Germany, across the Rhine River in Alsace France, and in the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland. Kirsch is German for "cherry" and Kirschwasser is "cherry water" Calling it water is a misleading, rather tame name. It is a double distilled real fruit brandy that packs a 40% proof punch. Unlike cherry liqueurs and so-called cherry brandies, Kirschwasser is not sweet. The best kirschwassers have a refined taste with subtle flavors of cherry and a slight bitter-almond taste derived from its unique "stones in" fermentation process.
Once you try it, you'll find it essential
Chef David LeBovitz says "I don't really call for expensive ingredients in recipes, but I think kirsch is so vital to my pantry larder that I can't help it and often have to tag on the word "optional" when I'd really like to say it's "obligatory." But I think that once you try it, you'll find it just as essential as I do." He points out that, while Kirsch is pricey, if one considers that it takes 20-30 pounds of cherries to make one bottle, it is good value. Used as an accent to cooking, it lasts a long time. Used as a drink - not so long!
A long history
It was originally the Romans who transported cherries from Turkey over the Alps into Switzerland and Germany. The particularly sour cherry was also introduced into England however sour cherry cultivation in England has diminished from its peak. The cherries were used for making jams and eventually for making brandy.
Historian Albert Hausser in his book "From food and in the Old Zürich" noted that in 1662 so many cherries were being distilled, that the magistrate feared it would render men poor and destitute if brandy consumption spread. This was two centuries before the term "alcoholism" first appeared.
By 1748 Kirsch was being offered for sale on the Zürich market and was being exported to neighboring countries as an alternative to beer and wine. In the 18th and 19th centuries its reputation grew and demand increased. It became an essential provision for hikers and was frequently mentioned in travelogues. It was also purchased by the Swiss army, where it was known as the "Kirsch Advantage". It was reputed to have given soldiers a sense of battle readiness. Greater punch perhaps?
How its Made
Traditionally, Kirsch is made from double distillation of morello cherries - a dark-colored cultivar of the sour cherry. However, it is now also made from other types of cherries.
Fully ripened cherries are mashed in a large vat, with the cherry stones still in, and allowed to ferment freely. Upon completion of fermentation, the entire mass liquid, pulp and cherry stones is distilled. During the mashing, some of the cherry stones, or pits, are crushed, releasing some of their oils and acids. These include small amounts of hydrocyanic acid which impart a distinctive bitter almond undertone to the beverage. During a second distillation process these gases are removed, reducing the bitterness.
Kirschwasser is colorless as it comes from the distillation process and it remains colorless because it is not aged in wood or barrels. In the past, it may have been aged in paraffin-lined wood barrels or earthenware vessels. These days, the aging is done in stainless steel tanks for about two years.
How Kirsch is used
Many deem that Kirsch is an essential ingredient in a true Black Forest Cake recipe. Chef David LeBovitz notes that Kirsch enhances the flavor of fruit included in many recipes, and as noted above he sees it as an essential pantry item. Mountain Mill Pudding LLC uses it in their Jeweled Cranberry Pudding, instead of cherry brandy, because it brings out the cranberry flavor. However, Kirsch is perhaps better know as a brandy, used in cocktails to enhance flavor. Better yet, as the townsfolk of Zürich, the mountain hikers, and the Swiss Army drank it-"neat" No doubt to better experience the true punch.