Though the great outdoors become more inhospitable as winter winds rise and temperatures drop, there's nothing like wandering through an evergreen forest as snow squeaks underfoot. And once people have trudged stiffly back inside, they can keep those forests with them by imbibing one of the world's many pine liqueurs.
These liqueurs have been a longtime fixture in European hotels and ski-lodges. Under the umbrella of "schnapps" (essentially any strong, clear alcoholic drink with little resemblance to the sweetened stuff marketed as schnapps in the United States), Austrians have been brewing their own pine-flavored varieties for generations. Yet it wasn't until the early 2000s that these evergreen spirits finally made their way to America — 2005 in particular seems to be the magic year. Call it good market research or just good timing, but at least three major pine spirits made their U.S. debut that year.
Any earlier and it's likely that pine liqueurs might have swiftly been forgotten. Pushing against the sweet excesses and cocktail-mixing flair of 1980s and '90s bar culture (and drinks with names like the "slippery nipple"), bartenders began reviving Prohibition Era classics like the Manhattan, Martini and Negroni — all spirits-heavy drinks light on mixers and sugar. As this renaissance started to take off, bartenders became open to even more daring spirits and flavors that would help their menus stand out—and there are few flavors more distinctive to Americans than pine.
Zirbenz, a red-hued Alpine liqueur made from the fresh fruit of the Arolla Stone Pine, has been distilled by Austria's Josef Hofer family in Styria since the late 1700s. Reaching this evergreen is no easy task. It grows at altitudes of roughly 4,000 to 8,000 feet, right up to the alpine tree line, after which conditions become too harsh. Though Zirbenz is often enjoyed in the winter, the mountaineers who pick the fruit harvest it when it ripens in early July.
Oregon's Clear Creek Distillery also harvests the buds for their Douglas Fir Eau de Vie when they're at peak freshness — early spring in the Pacific Northwest. In the 1990s, founder Steve McCarthy recalled the various pine spirits he'd tried in Europe and how he wanted to bring one to the United States.
"It was by far the most difficult of all our products to make because it's not just 'crush, ferment, distill,'" says Jeanine Racht, Clear Creek's national sales manager. Douglas Fir buds didn't have enough sugar in them for fermentation, so McCarthy turned to distillation. He soon got the flavor right but he wanted the liqueur to be green—with no added dye.