If you really want to scare a timid drinker, cart out some Grappa post dinner and watch the shivers. In fact, I have scared a lot of experienced and adventurous bona fide drinkers with the appearance of Grappa at the dinner table. No spirit, with the possible exception of Chartreuse, stimulates such polar reactions. Grappa detractors will tell you that this clear spirit is “fire water” and will “tear your tongue out” with a single dose. Grappa supporters will simply suggest that Grappa is enormously misunderstood and they’re right.
Grappa is in the brandy family of spirits. I have seen it suggested in print over the years that it is not really a brandy as brandy is produced from fermented fruits, commonly grapes, and Grappa is produced from grape skins. This assertion is patently false as it is not the grape skins that are distilled, rather the wine clinging to the skins of just fermented grapes (primarily red). In the case of white grapes, which are most often separated from their juice prior to fermentation, a careful extraction of any remaining juice is then fermented prior to distillation. Grappa is in a sub family of brandies having contemporaries in France known as Marc, Spain has Aguardiente, and Portugal it is called Bagaceira. What they share in common is being made from the surplus material from the production of wine and having a history as being a peasant drink. But now, some enjoy status among frequent diners and travelers.
The Experts Rap
Nearly a score of years has passed since Grappa made its modish entry to the American dining scene. On its introduction Grappa was often found in flamboyant bottles, which I suppose added to its appeal and mystique. Today most serious producers opt for standard, clear bottles and occasionally offer the hand-blown variety for holiday gift giving. Stick to the simple bottles when your hard-earned cash is on the line. Get to know the producers by name; there are not too many and barely a few when compared to wine. Most Grappa is distilled and bottled and labeled by the varietal or the production zone (such as Grappa di Barolo which allows the informed consumer to know that the Grappa is made from Nebbiolo grapes that had just been used in the production of Barolo). This is valuable information as the varietal used greatly influences the aroma, flavor, and general character of the Grappa. It is very likely that you may enjoy a Grappa made from one varietal while not being very fond of another. We suggest trying small samples from better retailers where allowed or getting to know the bartender at your favorite Italian restaurant.
When and How
Grappa is most often enjoyed after the meal as it aids with digestion and helps settle the stomach after a big meal. However, you could have a Grappa anytime and on occasion I enjoy one before dinner as an aperitif. Read some reviews.