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Gabbing About Grappa

Once you understand how grappa is made and how it’s typically used, you’ll be ready to incorporate this spirit into both your menu and personal bar.
A glass of grappa. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
A tulip glass of grappa. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Grappa is an Italian, grape-based brandy that’s oft-underused and underappreciated by even the most experienced liquor enthusiasts. Once you understand how grappa is made, what it tastes like, and how it’s typically used, you’ll be more equipped to incorporate this fine spirit into both your menu and personal bar.

The Rundown on Grappa

While wine is made from the juice of grapes, grappa is made from the pulp, skin, seeds, and stems of the fruit. This material is referred to as pomace, or vinaccia. In that sense, grappa is an experiment in resourcefulness — a way to utilize what would otherwise be discarded during the winemaking process — that turned out quite nicely for the region, and consequently the world.

“Grappa definitely was born as a 'poor people' drink to go through cold times, maybe because of the fact that it was made from the scraps,” explained Giulia Pelliccioni, co-owner and beverage director of Brooklyn’s LaRina Pastificio & Vino. “But it was brought to a higher lever after the ‘60s with the selection of special grapes, and more focus on quality and not quantity.”

For more information on this spirit’s rich history, we reached out to internationally renowned mixologist and expert in Italian spirits, Giuseppe Gallo (pictured below).

Giuseppe Galllo

“One of the first researchers to carry out experiments on the grape, and grape-wine derivatives, was Catalan Arnàn de Villanova, a Spanish physician and philosopher who lived between the second half of the 200 and early 300s,” said Gallo. “His research was condemned in Spain, but he retired to Sicily where he continued his research, favored by the excellent wine production of those sunny lands.”

Fast forward to the first half of the fifteenth century, where a Sienese physician and botanist named Priandrea Mattoli “successfully continued studying distillation and maceration.”

“It is in the regions of Tyrol and Trentino [that he] successfully developed the research to obtain, from the residues of grape juice, a strong and reconstituting liquor,” explained Gallo. “Mattioli himself confirmed that from an excellent wine, one can get ‘a water of life.’ Distillation began to become a common habit of wine producers, and consumption is a local phenomenon, especially in the Alpine valleys of northern Italy.”

Taste and Mixology

Like wine, grappa’s taste is affected by the type and quality of grapes used. There are three primary categories: dry, floral, and aged, and you can also find infused grappa.

Regarding aged grappa, Gallo described it as “complex, rounded, and honeyed.”

“Dry grappa has a pretty sharp — as they say, firewater — taste for a first timer,” said Pelliccioni. “I usually enjoy the floral ones, which can be a bit softer and sweeter and linger a bit longer on the palate. The person who made me like grappa is grappa maker, Vittorio Capovilla, who is maybe one of the world’s best distillers. He makes tons of different grappa and other distilled liqueurs, and one very exotic one is his tobacco-infused Grappa di Amarone.”

The bar at Brooklyn's LaRina Pastificio The bar at Brooklyn's LaRina Pastificio

When consumed neat, it’s customary to pour grappa into a proper tulip glass, and it ought to be chilled. Pelliccioni advised sipping it slowly, and recommended saving it for a post-meal treat. It’s the sort of liquor that warms you up, she said, confessing that it’s her go-to when on ski vacations in Italy.

Grappa also plays nicely with other flavors. It is perhaps most commonly paired with espresso or coffee as a “resentin,” again as a post-meal drink that ought to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Gallo said this, in fact, is his favorite way to enjoy grappa. Fruit liqueurs and citrus also complement grappa well; think a play on the traditional gimlet that marries grappa, lime juice, and simple syrup.

Though it may take a little more tracking down than other spirits, you can absolutely purchase grappa in the states. Experiment with different styles and infusions, drink it neat, mix it with other spirits and flavors, and be sure to spread the word of this underused, but worthy, spirit.

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