Yesterday a group of six of us went to the Schnapsmuseum in Vienna. It's not really a museum, exactly, but rather, a working distillery that has been open for quite a long time, and they give guided tours, and they call themselves a museum in order to pull more tourists in I think. Anyway, it was good fun. The current owner showed us photographs on the walls of the history of the place, going back to his great-grandfather well before World War II. He said that it was a good place to grow up; as a teenager, his parents would generally go off to the countryside on the weekends and leave him in charge, and a distillery is, as he said, rather a good place to have parties.
It was bombed during the war (just days before the end of the war, apparently), but the still itself was unharmed; being made of very thick metal, and designed to withstand the considerable pressures and stresses that build up during the distillation process, I guess it just shrugged off the collapse of the entire building around it. The fellow said that the still had originally been purchased by his great-grandfather at the world expo in Paris, but I'm not sure which one; perhaps 1900?
The bombing destroyed most of the rest of the facility, and there were a few sad photos of his grandfather standing in front of the bombed ruins of the place, looking more than a little unhappy. One of the only bits that survived was the front office, so it was preserved just as it was perhaps as much as a hundred years ago (?), including an ancient cash register from NCR (National Cash Register), a company now better known in the world of computers than cash registers. The register had two separate drawers, one for transactions that got recorded by the register for tax purposes, and one for transactions that one did not wish to record! It also made a lovely ka-ching sound when it opened its drawer.
I tasted absinthe for the first time, which was interesting. A bit bitter, but not as bitter as I expected. The owner said that the famed hallucinogenic properties of absinthe are in fact just due to the poor distillation techniques used at the time. Absinthe was popular because it was the cheapest drink on the market, more than because people particularly favored its taste over other drinks; and it was cheap because it was poorly made and distilled only once, and thus had quite a bit of methanol in it. The methanol would make you go blind and eventually kill you, but on the way, you'd have hallucinations and such. Properly made absinthe (such as his, of course) doesn't have any methanol (or no more than other distilled spirits, anyhow), and so is quite safe and non-hallucinogenic.
They make various other kinds of schnaps (in Austria they spell the word with only one "p", the double-p spelling is an Anglophone corruption apparently), liqueurs, brandies, creams, and so forth. The best part of the tour was that we got to taste all of their products! My favorite was an orange-based liqueur similar to Grand Marnier, with gold flakes in it.
I didn't have my camera with me, but Hayley has some nice photos on her blog.