Get to Know Grappa, the Fragrant Italian Liquor

hand holding up a glass of Grappa
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Once associated with peasants, Grappa has drifted from its modest origins. Today, the spirit is common at Italian dinner tables of all stripes. Grappa’s evolution is a result of both tradition and reinvention, as modern distillers work to refine their products for generations to come.

Though its role in modern drinking culture is still progressing, one thing is for sure: Grappa has come a long way. But if you’ve never found yourself with a glass of the Italian spirit before, you may be wondering what the deal is. With its reputation changing, we break down everything you need to know about the fragrant liquor, including what is grappa, what is grappa made from, and how do you drink grappa?

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What Is Grappa?

Grappa is an Italian spirit made from pomace—the grape seeds, skins and stems leftover from wine fermentation. It is traditionally enjoyed as a digestif, or after-dinner drink, to aid digestion and extend the evening.

This is not to be confused with brandy, which is produced by distilling wine and other fermented fruit juices. Whereas brandy can be made anywhere in the world, grappa is its own Geographical Indication (G.I.) and must be produced 100% within Italian territory from grapes grown exclusively in Italian soils.

How Is Grappa Made?

The process of making grappa is highly regulated. It’s also inherently sustainable. Production begins with leftover pomace obtained from winemakers. Pomace from red grapes is already fermented, whereas white wine pomace is considered “virgin” and requires fermentation prior to distillation.

Quality pomace is a top priority—it’s what gives the final product its primary flavor characteristics. “The main secret is the freshness of the grapes, then the still,” shares Lisa Tosolini of Bepi Tosolini, a family distillery in Northern Italy that’s been around since 1943.

Pomace
Image Courtesy of Hellograppa & Assodistil

Therefore, many distillers begin with quality assurance prior to distillation. Larger distilleries may also choose to preserve the grape pomace for later use.

Next comes distillation. Distillation is a thermal process that turns raw materials like pomace into a concentrated liquid. This is done by heating and cooling cycles that concentrate the alcohol level, as well as separate desirable and undesirable elements from the emerging spirit. We dive into more detail about what distillation is and how spirits are made here.

When it comes to grappa, distillers can distill in continuous or non-continuous cycles—that is, somewhat automatic versus in the hands of the master distiller. The former is used for large batches, whereas the latter is an artisanal approach that allows a more customized product.

Finally, the resulting clear distillate (once diluted with water) can be bottled as is or transferred to steel vessels or oak barrels to mature for anywhere from a few days to over 18 months.

oak barrels for Grappa
Image Courtesy of Hellograppa & Assodistil

The process as a whole demonstrates a unique synergy between spirits and sustainability. By turning the leftovers from winemaking into a product of its own, Grappa production models a circular economy that provides CO2 savings for the environment. Some distilleries take their sustainability efforts a step further, using byproducts for various uses from industrial biofuel to grapeseed oil for the home cook.

The Different Types of Grappa

Not all grappa is created equal. Like wine, grappa can be classified based on grape varietal, aroma and age.

Mono-varietal grappas are distilled from a single grape variety, such as Moscato or Ribolla. These grappas express the purest profile of the grape and its terroir, versus multi-varietal grappas that are made from a blend.

Classifying grappa based on aroma also depends on its raw material. Moscato, Malvasia and GewĂĽrztraminer are just a few of many naturally aromatic grapes that preserve their characteristics throughout distillation. Grappa can also be infused with flavorings like fruit, herb and licorice to achieve a different flavor profile.

In terms of aging, grappa falls into one of four categories, according to Hello Grappa, a grappa-focused trade organization:

Grappa Giovane (Unaged): Otherwise known as “young” grappa, this crystal clear product is bottled after a short rest in steel tanks.

Grappa Invecchiata (Aged): This grappa is matures in oak barrels for 12 to 18 months, taking on a light golden color and a more rounded character with hints of spices and vanilla.

Grappa Barricata: This grappa is also aged for 12 to 18 months, but in small wooden casks called Barriques. The resulting product is tannic with a deep golden color and rich flavors of tobacco, butter and cream.

Grappa Stravecchia (Very Old): Sometimes labeled as “grappa riserva,” this product is aged in oak barrels for more than 18 months. It takes on a golden amber color and intense flavors of spices and vanilla.

bottling Grappa
Image Courtesy of Hellograppa & Assodistil

What Does Grappa Taste Like?

Grappa had a bad reputation in its day for tasting like firewater, but that’s no longer the case. Different types of grappa take on very different flavor profiles ranging from green fruit and white florals, to aromas of hazelnut and dark chocolate.

“Some of the unaged grappas made from white grapes have these really beautiful floral notes on the nose,” shares Elana Abt, head sommelier at Quality Italian in New York City. “Sometimes there’s this ever so slight glycerol effect—like a little bit of a sugar quality even though there’s not very much sugar in the spirit itself.”

Aged grappa tastes wildly different. When visiting distilleries in Northern Italy, some of Abt’s colleagues found that they resembled some aged rums. “If I blind-tasted this, I would have thought it was rum Agricole,” says former bartender, co-founder of LTHospitality and TikTok Creator Chris Lowder.

How Do You Drink Grappa?

1. Drink Grappa Neat

The traditional way to taste and enjoy grappa is on its own—straight, in small sips—as an after-dinner drink to extend the evening. 

A small tulip-shaped glass is ideal for enjoying the aromas, filled just a quarter full. Young grappas should be slightly chilled (47-48°F) and aged grappas slightly below room temperature (61-62°F). 

2. Drink Grappa in Coffee

Looking to drink like an Italian from day to night? In the morning, some people blend grappa with a shot of espresso. This is called caffè corretto (which literally means “corrected coffee”) and can be enjoyed as an after-dinner drink as well.

3. Make a Grappa Cocktail

Breaking away from tradition, grappa has recently made its way into the hands of nifty mixologists as a base liquor with many possibilities. 

The Ve.n.to is the first IBA (International Bartender Association) cocktail that uses grappa as its base. Its name pays homage to those regions in Italy renowned for producing grappa through the years—“Ve” for Venezia and “to” for Trentino Alto Adige. The middle “n” reflects the larger region of Veneto that contains the former and shares a border with the latter.

The cocktail itself is a blend of lemon, honey, chamomile and an optional egg white that highlights the complex flavors of grappa, as well as its versatility.

Grappa Semifreddo is another option: a creamy combination of the Italian frozen dessert and a shot of grappa. Semifreddo has a frozen mousse-like texture, which when combined with the spirit melts away as a thick and pleasurable drink. To amplify the flavor, you can add amaretto or a coffee-based liqueur as well. 

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4. Bake With Grappa

Like Amaretto and Bourbon, grappa can booze up your Grandma’s favorite recipes.

The aromas of grappa are typically paired with bitter chocolate or dried fruit—think sweet Panettone from Northern Italy. Though the possibilities for incorporating grappa into both sweet and savory dishes are endless.

Where Can I Buy Grappa?

Grappa may be tricky to locate in the U.S. compared to Italian wines and clothing. Luckily, online retailers as well as Italian liquor shops offer a selection of imported bottles to choose from.

If a whole bottle seems a bit daunting for your first sip, try finding an authentic Italian restaurant nearby. The more traditional offerings, the more likely grappa will appear on the after-dinner drink menu.

Published on January 3, 2023
Topics: Drinks