To talk about grappa, we must start by saying that it belongs to the category of distillate spirits. So what’s a distillate?
Distillates are all drinks with a high alcohol content, derived from the distillation of fermented sugary liquid. The best known are Cognac, Armagnac, Vodka, Rum, Gin, Whiskey, Calvados and …. Grappa!
Distilling is a technique that dates back to the ancient world, practised by the Babylonians, Greeks and Egyptians although the real origin is unknown. It is a very complex process carried out with an instrument called an alembic or still that heats the fermented liquid.
Although the origins of Grappa are not known, it is known that by the sixteenth century it was widely drunk among the poor of Northern Italy.
The reputation of this so-called ‘alcohol of the poor’ was justified by the fact that the rich drank wines and wine distillates (Cognac and Armagnac) while the poor had to be satisfied with the skins, seeds and stalks of fermented grapes – waste in essence – called pomace from the Latin ‘pomum’ for fruit or fruit tree. As well as a drink for the Italian poor, it was exported to the East by the Republic of Venice as a remedy against the plague and gout.
The notoriety of grappa increased considerably during the First World War as, for the soldiers who guarded the borders on the Alps, it became an easy means to face the cold and find courage.
From 1950 increasing knowledge of distillation and fermentation allowed the market to be regulated and refinements began to be made to flavour and sweeten the alcohol content and aromas. Over the years, Grappa has become a valuable product, strongly integrated into the culinary tradition but also among the most exported and famous liquors in the world.
In the past it was common in the North of Italy to produce spirits at home. Today this is absolutely forbidden by law because in the first phase of boiling in the alembic, methanol is produced, commonly called the ‘head’ of the distillate, which is seriously toxic. Only expert distillers know how to recognise the right boiling point for ethanol extraction, or the heart of distillation, (grappa therefore), and know how to remove methanol correctly. As the temperature rises, substances called the ‘tail’ of the distillate are produced, which are not toxic like methanol, but unpleasant to the taste, and must be removed by expert hands.
Grappa is normally drunk at the end of a meal, but there are areas of Italy, among which Brianza, an area close to Milan, stands out, where it is also common to drink it before a meal to facilitate digestion.
Being made from grape waste used to produce wine, grappa can be produced with all types of grapes and can be subject to various types of ageing. So there are grappas on the market for all tastes and of different alcoholic grades.
Talking about food, Grappa is used in the preparation of desserts, as a preservative, to caramelize, to blend risotto and sautées. Barred grappas go very well with chocolate, while white grappas are perfect for honey-based desserts.
Personally, I find it wonderful when paired with creamy or spreadable cheeses, such as stracchino and mustard or ricotta and honey!
It should not be served too hot or too cold and the perfect glass (it must be glass) is a small tulip-shaped one, which directs the aromas directly into the nose.
It is a product rooted in Italian food culture to be drunk in small sips, letting the liquid swirl in the mouth for a few seconds. You will have in your mouth all the aromas perceived by the nose. It is a unique experience!
Personally I love it very much, for its wonderful, inimitable character!
A perfect match for a nice glass of grappa is a yummy chocolate cake. Try this very simple and delicious cake from one of my old posts
… da leccarsi i baffi! (Mouth-watering).