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What is Italian grappa, and how to enjoy it

The Italian drink, made by distilling grape skins, acts as a perfect digestif

Traditionally, grappa is poured into small flute glasses and enjoyed as an aperitif.
Traditionally, grappa is poured into small flute glasses and enjoyed as an aperitif. (Istockphoto)

I sat down with a glass of grappa to start writing about this popular Italian drink. Often nicknamed "firewater," Grappa is made from pomace (discarded grape seeds, stems, and skins) and mostly enjoyed as a digestive post-dinner drink.

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It originated in the north Italy, and became popular during the fourteenth to seventeenth century. It still remains an integral aspect of Italian culture, albeit in need of a modern outlook. While traipsing through the grappa and Italian brandy-producing distilleries in the Treviso region recently, I realised that the drink is here to stay. Italy may be known for a wide range of wines like Prosecco, Amarone, Brunello, Barolo, Marsala, or drinks like limoncello and negronis, but grappa holds a special place in every Italian household.

By law, grappa can only come from Italy, or from the Italian part of Switzerland, or from San Marino.

Grappa began its journey as a poor Italian man's spirit made using every bit of fermentable sugar left in the grapes after producing wine from them. There is a conjecture that the Italian Benedictine monks in Salerno first learned the distillation techniques to preserve medicinal herbs by infusing them in alcohol. Later, this knowledge helped pave the way for distilling spirits during the mid-fourteenth century. By the end of the fifteenth century, grappa production was licensed and taxed, making it official to distillate wine and pomace (the leftover in the winemaking process).

The word "grappa" comes from the Latin word "grappapolis," meaning "a bunch of grapes." The term grappa, earlier known as "aquavite di vinaccia," translating as "water of life from grape pomace," became official only after the spirit was given a denomination in 1951. Nardini, Italy's oldest grappa-producing company (established in 1779), had a lot to contribute to keep the momentum alive for this indigenous spirit.

Traditionally, grappa is distilled from the fermented squashed grape skin or pomace. Fresh and lightly crushed pomace make better quality grappas. It can be made from white grapes and red grapes; however, when pomace from white grapes is used, they require fermentation (2.5% abv) after reaching the distillery, before being distilled, whereas red grape pomace (4% abv at this stage) can go directly for distillation. Subsequently, the pomace is stored in silos to retain moisture; then, it goes through a sorting process before it is transferred to the stills for distillation. Italian law prohibits adding water during the distillation process of grappa, so the extraction of pure alcohol from the pomace requires two types of stills, continuous stills, as well as discontinuous stills. At the end of the following two stages while using the continuous still, the pomace spirit is at 80-86% abv. The discontinuous or batch distillation technique using alembic stills is the more traditional approach to making grappa, and is still considered more premium. After the spirit rests in vats for around six months, it is diluted to bring it down to 40% to 50% abv before being bottled and sold.

The different styles of grappa are categoried according to maturation levels. Ageing adds a dry, woody, and mellow texture to the drink, making it a premium experience. Bianca or Giovane refers to unaged grappa, and Affinata in Legno means matured or ‘fine’ in wood for a very brief time. Some are aged for a year or more in acacia, cherry, or ash wood, and are called vecchia (aged for 12-18 months) or riserva (aged for more than 18 months).

Drink it the Italian Way

Alessandro Piso, the Italian Chef at J W Sahar Mumbai, says, "For us, grappa is a digestive. It is an after-dinner drink. It should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled in small glasses and enjoyed in small sips." A tulip-style glass is perfect to pick the aromas.

While you can enjoy grappa neat, mixing it with other libations, or drinking it with tonic can be refreshing.

Grappa and coffee

Pairing your espresso with grappa could be rewarding. Pour a few drops of premium grappa into your coffee or espresso cup to elevate the experience of a caffe corretto (corrected coffee). Alternately, drink your coffee, then follow it up with a shot of grappa to make it a ammazzacaffe (coffee killer). In Veneto, there is a tradition of sipping resentin, which is the rinsing the coffee cup with a few drops of grappa and sipping it.

Sip it like cognac

A premium-aged grappa can offer the complexities of a cognac due to the smooth finish, offered by ageing in a variety of woods. So, it's only apt that you enjoy every sip of it in a snifter or brandy glass.

Recently, there is a trend of pairing this spirit with food in grappa bars and premium dining outlets. This may widen the scope for grappa to be enjoyed as a drink served with a meal other than just acting as a digestif. Interestingly, the spirit is also finding ground amongst drinks enthusiasts experimenting with various finishes and styles.

Next time you find yourself in Italy, pick up a range of grappa and create your own menu for the guests to elevate the party experience at home, or a good start is to ask the bartender at your favourite bar to serve you his signature grappa cocktail.

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Rojita Tiwari is a drinks writer, educator and consultant based in Mumbai.

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