I don't know much about grappa except that it's often rough and tumble, prove your bravery type of shot after dinner. Like so many things, boy am I wrong.
Patrick Gaggiano, colleague, manager and bartender at Trina's Starlite Lounge (protecting myself with an Irish-Italian American) and I sat down with
Francesco Calderaro of Winebow, representing Nardini spirits of Northern Italy. He's from Sicily, by the way, so I got information directly from the source.
First of all, grappa is made from distilling the fermented pomace (skins and seeds left from table wine production), or 'vinaccia' in Italian. The substance is a solid, but spongy and delicate- unlike brandy which is distilled from fermented grape juice. That difference makes it inherently rougher, but also gets closer to the essence of the grapes. Nardini utilizes both pot and continuous stills, a vacuum sealed steam still let's them distill at lower temperatures first, extracting the most possible fragrance and flavor from the pomace.
Bortolo Nardini arrived in Bassano del Grappa in 1779 (about 75km northwest of Verona), traveling from Trentino. The headquarters are located in the original Grapperia on the bridge of the town, operated by the seventh generation of the Nardini family. Focus is, and always has been on quality. Many producers rely on spectacularly ornate glass bottles to sell product- Nardini is about what's inside and prefers classic simple elegance and tradition. Their spirit label even continues to include the old reference to Italian 'water of life' (eau de vie in French)- Aquavite. Certainly grappa did have humble beginnings as a by product of wine making, but if as many producers showed this kind of care it would be discussed in more reverent tones like Cognac.
The Grappa Bianca, is crystal clear, coming directly from the still with no barrel aging, much like a blanco Tequila. Pinot Griggio, Tocai, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are harvested between the Brenta and Piave rivers- premium grapes make a premium spirit. This idea is much like my chef friends who insist on only cooking with a wine they would also like to drink. 50% alcohol is obvious, but there is a generous floral nose from the grapes. Tasting it's more gentle, thanks to quality distillation- lemon, tea, honeyed flavors- an excellent digestif after dinner or mixer in, yes, cocktails. Check out ilovegrappa.com for an extensive history of grappa and some terrific cocktails by the legendary Dale Degroff. Think of using it as an alternative to brandy or pisco in drinks.
The Grappa Riserva has been aged for five years in Slovonian oak, giving it a pale straw/gold coloring and enhancing the honeyed character with vanilla. It seems rounder, softer and more delicate; less of a shot, more of a sip in a snifter. Think Madonna's 'Lucky Star' for the Bianca, 'Like a Prayer' for the Riserva. Yup, I said it.
Grappa alla Ruta is the Bianca that has been infused with Rue grown in the foothills surrounding Lake Garda for a year. The fragrance and flavor is distinctively herbal and I'd imagine it is one of those things you love or hate, not much in between, like Cilantro. I love it by the way. The Ruta would be a great substitute for Chartreuse- think Rye 1.5oz, Nardini Grappa alla Ruta .75oz, and Maraschino Liqueur .5oz, dash of orange bitters (a take on the Green Point cocktail).
Grappa alla Mandorla is also the Bianca, this time with bitter almond essences rounded with distilled cherry juice. It's like brandy meets amaretto- intense, bitter with slight sweetness- delicious! Try this:
Agro di Gaggiano: Nardini Mandorla 1.5oz, lemon juice .5oz, simple syrup .5oz, 1 egg white, topped with orange and Angostura bitters. Dry shake (no ice) the Nardini, simple and egg white vigorously. Add lemon juice, ice and then re-shake. Strain into a coup or wine glass, top with bitters. If you are afraid of the raw egg you can substitute pasteurized egg white which is widely available at grocery stores.
Finally, if you've gotten this far, I have to give a nod to Nardini's Tagliatella. It was created accidentally a century ago when the distillery sold products on tap. As various handles were used, they had a propensity to loosen and drip- waste not, want not- they barreled the drippings. Like the pasta 'Taglia' is a 'cut' or appropriately here a cocktail of all their distillates. It was also what people were drinking to save a little money- I like this idea of a hugely popular cocktail of the people- kind of the original bar mat shooter. Over the years, of course, the technique changed to be an infusion of grappa, cherry juice, orange and other aromatic components. Fruity but very well balanced, I tried it as a sweet vermouth substitute in a Manhattan- the bitter-sweet cherry really stands out- fantastic!
Even better was Francesco's analysis: "it is a holiday in a bottle!"
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