Chances are, you have sipped grappa after a long meal at an Italian restaurant, and you were intrigued, overwhelmed – or both. This spirit has long gone misunderstood (many only remember a super strong, burning sensation) but it is slowly creeping into the spotlight, thanks to new distillers and fresh ways of using it.
“Grappas are an acquired taste and a subject often misunderstood,” admits Marcus Myint, Captain at NYC’s Locanda Verde restaurant. “It can be challenging to approach speaking to guests tableside about it.”
Here, we present the 6 Essentials of Grappa – the things you need to know in order to better appreciate and enjoy it.
- Grappa is made from pomace aka the skins, seeds and stems left over from winemaking. Sure, it may sound like grappa is basically made from the scraps of wine but that’s not the case. “It is a tradition that is truly exemplarily of ‘Italian thrift’, because you don’t waste anything,” explains Chef Cathy Whims, chef and owner of Portland’s Nostrana. “You use everything that is given to you. It’s a kind of version of nose-to-tail cooking which happens in the meat world.” Adds Luca Fabris, CEO of Gra’it grappa: “Many people think of pomace as the waste from winemaking but the skin is the best part of the grape – it has the most aroma and flavors.
- Grappa has a higher ABV (alcohol by volume) than wine. You may think of it in the same class, but grappa is actually boozier: wine has an average ABV of 12% while grappa must be between 35-60% in order to be sold; most clock in around 37.5%. By comparison, vodka, rum and tequila are generally 40%.
- Grappa is a digestif. “In Italy, we call grappa “healthy water” because at the end of a rich meal, we love to sip it while we relax and digest,” says Francesco Panella, owner of Antica Pesa restaurants in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Rome. Adds Myint: “The beauty of grappa is that it is an aromatic, neutral spirit with great digestif qualities. Sure, you could drink it straight, but you can also get creative, sidestep its arguably aggressive bite, and use it in cocktails, cooking, or of course alongside an espresso. I’m a big fan of leveraging grappa’s digestif qualities and using them intermittently throughout a meal.”
- Using the right grappa glass is key. A good grappa glass is generally tall and narrow with a slightly wider opening at the top, to allow for the aromas to be enjoyed. “Grappa is inherently a strongly flavored alcohol,” says Chef Whims.” Also, there is no DOC protection system in the world of grappa, like there is with wine, so there is no guarantee of quality.” Many grappa drinkers like it at room temperature, but this can cause that burning sensation. Keep the glass filled one-third or less – this keeps the vapors further from your nose.
- Grappa is being used more and more in cocktails. “Grappa should have its place in cocktails like all the other spirits,” says Bill Riley, Corporate Beverage Director for Three Kings Restaurant Group (Chef Dale Talde’s team). “There are a lot of flavors to work with. Try soaking figs in grappa for a few days and you have an instant after-dinner drink.” Meanwhile, Panella points out that “in America, it’s becoming more and more popular now as bartenders are incorporating it into cocktails. It’s a great concept, especially for a digestif, because it really rounds out the entire meal experience. In fact, we can even use it as an excuse to continue the night with friends and family!”
- Grappa is definitely having its moment. “Most people learn to love grappa the more times they try it and the more they taste it,” says Chef Whims. “It can get people really excited, and they embrace it to aid digestion and cleanse the palate at the end of their meal. Adds Fabris: “Grappa is huge in the US now, especially as a mixing category. How did vodka make it into cocktails? And rum and tequila? The quality of these spirits improved so it could be drank differently. Plus, the bartending community has a large influence, and now grappa can hold up against the most renowned spirit categories.”
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