Like many people, I swore off grappa soon
after the first fiery mouthful burned its way down
my throat. Suppressing a cough and blinking
through watery eyes, I knew the stylish hand-
blown bottle of what seemed to be little more
than high-octane moonshine wasn't for my
taste buds.

Fast forward a few years, and I have become a
grappa evangelist, the guy who sometimes
picks restaurants based on their grappa
selection and who gently cajoles dinner
partners into trying a sip or two of the maligned
and misunderstood liquid for themselves.

What happened? A bit of intellectual curiosity coupled with the belief that so many
Italians can't be wrong convinced me to keep trying grappa now and then. And over
time, I realized that while bad grappa is very bad, good grappa is very, very good.

Trouble is, most grappa is bad. Italian law requires that the pomice left over from
making wine be distilled, and so most winemakers eagerly sell the stuff to distilleries
that turn it into a powerful but one-dimensional drink that can approach 140 proof. The
crystal-clear firewater recalls the drink's history as harsh protection against cold nights
and as a bitter folk remedy for anything from headaches to bronchitis to indigestion --
but its rarely appeals to food lovers.

    Luckily, a few producers take the process more
    seriously, using higher quality grapes, separating
    the stems and seeds that can make the final
    product harsh or oily, and otherwise monitoring the
    distillation process carefully. The grappa that
    process produces is no less potent than a less-
    artfully-made version, but it can contain nuances
    that are a complex as those in wine -- even if they
    can be harder to pick up on.

    Antonio Nardini, from the ancient Nardini grappa
    house, says he recommends new grappa drinkers
    start out by pouring a couple of drops on the back
    of their hands and rubbing it in with the other hand
    before breathing the aroma in and then drinking
    from the glass. The friction helps some of the
    alcohol evaporate and makes the grappa's natural
    aromas more apparent.

My favorite trick for separating grappa's more subtle aromas from the smell of alcohol is
to tilt the glass toward my nose but to smell from the top part of the glass, where the
alcohol is more dissipated. But the goal is the same.

"There's a connection between the nose and the palate and so taking in the aromas in
first can make them more apparent to the taste buds," Nardini says.

Picking a good grappa is largely a matter of knowing the characteristics of specific
grapes and the merits of specific producers.

Any grape can be made into grappa, from
an aromatic grape like Moscato to a beefy
and muscular alternative like Nebbiolo or
Nero d'Avola. The grappa will reflect a lot
of that grape's character, and, without
exception, better grapes make better
grappa -- so pick a bottle from an area
known for its wine.

The producer is just as important.
Chances are that a well-known wine
maker will only put its name on a grappa
that will reflect positively on it, for example.
And then there are producers that
specialize in making top quality grappa,
such as the previously mentioned Nardini,
or Jacopo Poli, Nonino, or Berta.

An oily taste also gives a hint about the process, meaning the seeds were fermented.
Not only does the taste make you pucker, but it can make a hangover more likely. A
good grappa should taste clean.

Another clue is to look for grappa that is colored rather than clear. That can mean it's
infused with something else (alcohol from fruit or nuts, for example) which can make
the taste softer. But most of the time the color comes from ageing from a year to
decades in oak barrels (some color can also come from synthetic colorings, so beware
of a reddish color, which can mean it gets too much of its coloring from artificial means).

A final hint: I also try to stay away from elaborate and stylish bottles like the one that
produced my first grappa, on the belief that I'd rather pay for what's inside the bottle than
for the bottle itself.

Some Italians put a few drops in a cup of espresso coffee to make a "cafe corretto" (the
coffee is "corrected" by the grappa). But I prefer young, clear grappa chilled and in a tall,
thin glass. Aged grappa is better at room temperature, and in a whisky glass or a
brandy snifter. In either case, a few sips help the food digest, a surprisingly elegant
finish to a great meal.
This article originally appeared in
          When it's good, it's very good
Eric J. Lyman
(c) 2007 Wine Report
All rights reserved.
September/October 2007