Seasonal drinking in Vienna has the KO Factor

Seasonal drinking in Vienna has the KO Factor
Christkindlmarkt, Vienna. Photo: Carien du Plessis

When in Vienna during the festive season, it’s hard to avoid getting punsch-drunk on the hot beverage which locals insist is superior to the better-known glühwein. Punsch is more typically Austrian, and when Daily Maverick’s Carien du Plessis happened to be in the city just before Christmas, she submitted herself to a robust punsch taste test on our behalf. She even saw a guy “convince a stranger to part with her mug for a sip of punsch, and then make off with the entire mug in a hurry”.


It was on the wrong side of the 7.40am take-off and the Austrian Airways plane was still grounded on the tarmac of Zurich Airport. Snow was seriously interfering with Swiss temporal precision. The delay was to be an hour long, while airport workers hosed off the icy stuff that coated the Austrian Airways plane the night before, to the amusement of the passengers inside. If they were in a hurry to take off, they didn’t show it. It was two weeks before Christmas and the first snow of the season. We were all children. People even struck up conversations, which is how the Austrian mother-of-a-two-year-old from Graz in the seat next to me urged me to try punsch.

It is glühwein I crave,” I told her, but her face fell.

She reckons punsch is more typically Austrian, so it was punsch and not glühwein I set out to find a few hours after arriving in Vienna. It wasn’t too difficult – at least not after 2pm, when the Christmas markets across town start opening. Judging from where people congregate in these open-air spaces, it’s the alcohol and food stalls – despite being in a minority – that make them stick around. The gift and craft stalls that sell everything from beeswax candles to Christmassy wreaths and tree decorations, from gingerbread objects to preserves, seem to be mere details.

The Christmas market, or Christkindlmarkt (literally Christ Child Market, but more loosely translated as the “spirit of Christmas” market) tradition in Vienna dates back to the Middle Ages when Albrecht I in 1298 granted the town’s citizens the privilege of holding a December Market, or “Krippenmarkt”. More than seven centuries later, there are more than 20 official markets in the public spaces of the city, with the one in front of the Rathaus being perhaps the most impressive (those large, red, heart-shaped Christmas lights in one of the trees being a most-desirable item) – and, on weekend days, the most crowded. You’re bound to spill your drink. It is, possibly, a good place to relive the teenage years you never had in Europe by trying to drink and ice skate, even at the same time, but it was cold enough without kissing the ice, so this idea wasn’t road-tested.

My punsch-tasting started with Winter in the City by the very classy and famous tea room, Haas & Haas, right behind St Stephens Cathedral. They keep it real, with only two punsch flavours, spice and apricot, both tasting “natural and home made” because “we prepare it ourselves, using no flavour concentrates, artificial flavours or preservatives”. There is also glühwein, alongside the punsch, at all the establishments, but when you have a small time window in which to research alcohol, better to keep it focused.

The spicy punsch was top-tasting, and the set-up in the small courtyard was cosy with Christmas trees, lots of wood and gas lanterns for heat. Why Europeans insist on hanging out outside in temperatures barely licking zero Celsius, is a mystery. Maybe it helps punsch sales, and there’s something to be said for the way thawing powers punsch packs.

Other markets use a kind of syrup, you know, like Starbucks makes hot chocolate and things with … that syrup,” the smiling woman behind the counter explained as she screwed up her face.

We use some tea, spices and rum,” her colleague explained. “All natural ingredients.”

The punsch doesn’t taste much like black tea, so perhaps it’s more of a fruit infusion, and the rum is so subtle you don’t taste it until it kicks you. So that seems to be the deal with punsch.

By the time this tasting was done, my colleague Lindsay Dentlinger was free, and readily joined in the project. She correctly described our mission to Vienna: “We came for the conference and stayed for the punsch”, because really we were supposed to be there for the Africa Europe High Level Forum at the invitation of the Austrian Chancellor. In our search for a bio market (because the natural punsch is supposedly best), we stumbled on the Alt Wiener market, and decided to warm up, Lindsay with a berry punch (containing very pickled strawberries), while I went with a spice punch to do a direct comparison with the Haas & Haas version. The ultimate verdict is that drinking punsch with a companion is much more fun than drinking alone, but the first punsch was still better.

The Rathaus punsch was the most spectacular, both for the heart-shaped mug (there were shoe shapes too) and for the amount of sugar it packed. My punsch was the envy of Lindsay, as the egg liquor version came with a heart-stopping wallop of cream and a drizzle of egg liquor, tasting like drunken custard. You pay a €4 deposit for the mug on top of the €4 or so for the liquid in it, and as we wandered around the market my attention was concentrated as much on keeping the liquid from spilling from the mug as it was on keeping the mug whole.

We also saw some guy convince a stranger to part with her mug for a sip of punsch, and then make off with the entire mug in a hurry. She did accost him and got it back. We wandered off to the ice skating rink to spectate, and fortunately there was a solid fence to hold on for stability.

It’s also possible to drink for a good cause, and punsch stalls by the Rotary Club and various charities (you can drink for a guide dog, for instance, and we also drank some deliciously home-made punsch for a nursing home, at 10 cents cheaper than the commercial market), but the bottom line of it all is that the cold makes you pee a lot and often.

We giggled our way back to our hotel, punsch-drunk, mindful not to slip in the few remaining snow patches on our way. DM


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