There is a weathered road where the bus from Milan ends. Here nestled amongst the vine covered hills is Rivergaro. The village greets you like a kind Italian smile. It was here that I had my first experience with Italian Spirits. I don’t want to lead you astray. By this, I mean wine, amaro, and grappa.
My cousin and I had found a work/stay opportunity at a small vineyard outside this dreamy northern town. I was young. My experience with other cultures and drinks was very limited. I thought an IPA was an exotic experience. Luckily there was a cozy bar with a friendly bartender to guide our way.
I'll admit it. I was on the hate train. Ever since I've started exploring alcohol I have detested Grappa. It elicited shivers before it even got near my stomach. I considered it to be one of those drinks that was only forced upon guests as a right of passage, like Chicago and Malort. The first experiences of Grappa usually have a similar trajectory. The Italian dinner is going great. The anti-pasti is wonderful the laughter and conversation have lead to another bottle of Barbaresco* shared between friends and family. As the night wears on and everyone is satiated the desire for something to settle the stomach boils up in the Patriarch. A slightly slurred speech about the Italian country-side and a real drink begins to spill forth. You are going to have to drink Grappa tonight. A dusty cheap bottle is removed from a cabinet that should have remained closed.
I thought this was the only way I'd drink the stuff. Someones Italian Uncle would force it upon me. I loathed the idea of it. I thought all of it was cheap swill used for flushing out transmissions. I was young. I was dumb, and I was very wrong. Grappa can be a majestic experience you just need the right bottle.
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A brief HISTORY OF DISTILLATION
In order to understand what separates grappa from other spirits we need to cover the different methods of creating alcohol.
Stills were used before the Christian era for the creation of perfume balms and essences. Since different ingredients boil and evaporate at different temperatures the still was used to extract the lighter ingredients which created powerful perfumes that were sought around the known world. There were some scholars who thought there might be nobler uses for the technology. Aristotle wrote his thoughts on distillation in Meteorologica in 340BCE "Seawater can be made potable by distillation as well and wine and other liquids can be submitted to the same process."
These still were rudementary and while different people are named to be the first to create our modern understanding of alcohol creation it really isn't until the 8th Century AD that a true victor can me named over this creation. Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan designed the first Alembic pot still. The Alembic still would pave the way for the creation of Aqua Vitae, the water of life.
Aqua Vitae was supplied directly to the public in Italy in the 14th Century by monks as medicine. What a great time to be a patient. Luckily a Jesuit from Brescia named Francesco Terzi Lana (1631-1687) was the first to create a viable distillate from only the seeds, stems, pulp, and skins of grapes. From this pomace we were given the very first Grappa.
GRAPPA: THE MISUNDERSTOOD SPIRIT
Grappa, like any spirit coming out of the European Union, has a lot of rules and regulations. Here are some of the most important.
In order for something to be called Grappa it has to hit the right marks
It should be from Italy. I say should because nothing prevents producers outside of the European Union to go rogue and label their Eu da Vie Grappa.
Produced from Pomace. Pomace is all the seeds, stems, and leftover skins and pulp from wine production.
You can't add water to the distillation process. Allow me to break that down. Only the small amount of sugar soaked juice from the grapes themselves can be used to create Grappa. It used to be that open flame was the only way to distill the alcoholic vapors. The pomace on the bottom would burn and you would get that jet-fuel flavor that I've come to fear in the very fibers of my being. But now different methods are employed. A bain-Marie still or steaming process is employed creating a perceivable depth of flavor.
After Distillation grappa must rest 6 months
Lastly the final product must contain 37.5% alcohol by volume
All this information is well and good you may be thinking, but what I really need are examples. What should I be looking for? What should I stock at home? Well now that you are equipped with the background. Lets get into it...but first
The Elevated Espresso Flip
.75oz Coffee liqueur
.5oz Rich Demerara syrup (2:1)
This drink is fun for a few reasons. It puts cultural life into a cocktail that has been considered only one step above the Vodka redbull. By adding a lush well produced grappa instead of odorless, tasteless vodka we hearken back to a fine Italian pastime of enjoying the cafe corretto. Simply a shot of espresso and grappa it has been enjoyed by genteel Italians for generations.
First up on our list is one that is a little more exotic. Referenced in one of the best books for any Alcohol Enthusiast "The Drunken Botanist" this bottling is made by one of the premiere Grappa producers in the world. In keeping with tradition Paolo Marolo uses a bain-marie continuous alembic still to create a refined spirit. The country side of Alba is awash with Chamomile in the summer and it drips elegant in this fine example of Italian artistry.
There are some rare gems that belong out of reach but ready for the perfect occasion. I would enjoy this grappa neat. At cellar temperature. Exploring Nonino's full line of distillates is a gift for your own palate. They have been running the game for decades, and they deserve it. This bottling usually has charactericstics of sourdough and vanilla. Rested for 8-10 months. A decadent example of what this category can be.