When I first tried grappa in Venice, Italy, my Italian language skills were limited to waving my hands about wildly, and adding an “ah” sound at the end of English words. The Italians were understandably befuddled, as was I, but for another reason all together. I just didn’t get why all the locals kept referring to their most popular after-dinner drink as “crap-ah,” because in my opinion it was anything but.
I eventually learned that grappa is brandy distilled from pomace — the stuff, mainly skins, left over after grapes have been pressed to make wine. Grappa has been around since the Middle Ages, and for a long time it was considered a poor man’s libation, mainly because all the people who could afford wine were drinking that instead. Around the mid-20th century, however, grappa started to shed its moonshiney reputation and come into its own among genteel society. Though most commonly enjoyed as a digestif or in an espresso, many Italians swear by grappa’s curative powers and use it to treat everything from tummy aches to depression.
This so-called “firewater” is certainly one of the more hit or miss spirits on the market today — the good stuff, like I had in Venice, is balanced and complex with a flavor profile similar to cognac (only sweeter), while cheaply made grappa — more stems and seeds than grape juice — tastes, for the most part, like kerosene. And there is no shortage of crap-ah grappa on the shelves, so buyer beware. Among the more consistent quality Italian producers are Alexander, Candolini, Jacopo Poli, and Nonino. They make limited quantities of grappa in America, as well, and the best I’ve had comes from an Oregon producer called Clear Creek.
Grappa neophytes might want to begin with Grappa di Cabernet or Grappa di Moscato. The former is made from the pulpy residue of cabs franc and sauvignon and is distilled twice in copper steam alembic stills that help preserve the red berry flavor of the grapes. The Moscato is sweeter and tends to linger longer on the palate. From there, you may graduate to the Platinum Grappa made from the pomace of Amarone and its desert wine counterpart, Recioto di Amarone. It smells like fancy perfume, and tastes like sour plums dipped in honey.
Purists sip grappa neat from chilled straight-sided shot glasses, but as more and more boutique brands have gained popularity specialty flutes and large tulip glasses designed to showcase a grappa’s bouquet are increasingly being used at tastings. A neat serving twist is to try it on the rocks with a little tonic water. It’s delicious. Or, as they say in Italy, absolutely-ah great-ah.