In 1999, I decided that I was going to enjoy drinking Scotch whisky. I was entranced by the salty characters I watched every week during my film noir course and, as with many other college-aged, semi-adolescent boys, I was on a Charles Bukowski kick. The men in these stories were hard-boiled and decisive. They smoked a pack of cigarettes a day (something I also imitated, unfortunately) and lived life by their own rules. I definitely wanted in. The first bottle of Scotch was purchased for me by a friend at the local supermarket. It was called Blandy’s and it cost around $10. I filled two glasses with ice cubes and together we poured ourselves a few fingers. He drained his in a matter of minutes, while I struggled severely. This was harder than I had expected.
Certain preferences in life are the result of repetition and pure perseverance. Nobody truly enjoyed their first cigarette, they had to make themselves like it (in fact, that’s a piece of information used to help many smokers kick the habit). Other culinary delicacies, such as foie gras, escargot or even sushi, are not appreciated by the younger, inexperienced palate, but are savored by the more seasoned aficionado. I believe that with practice and increased exposure to the proper influences you can grow to like things.
Every serious meal I’ve ever had in Italy ended with a small glass of grappa and, because of the fond memories these events left me with, I associate grappa with happiness. But it wasn’t always so pleasant. The first glass of grappa I ever drank went down like fire and left my mouth tasting of gasoline and rubbing alcohol. My parents were hosting their German friends Lilo and Dieter for dinner and they had brought it along with them. “It helps with digestion,” they explained to me. It had better have some medicinal purpose, I thought, because it tastes like crap. More than any other distilled spirit, bad grappa can truly live up to its reputation as “firewater.” Even though it burned my throat and made my eyes water, I noticed how everyone else was truly enjoying their small glass around the dinner table. Years later, while traveling through Italy on my own, I was an older and more established drinker looking to experience everything the country could offer. Every trattoria has a locally made grappa on their shelf, whether it was in a fancy bottle or an unlabeled pitcher, and I sampled each one. I was determined to understand what made people want to drink it. Sometimes it came straight, and other times infused with a sweet liqueur. One time while dining with Lilo and Dieter in their apartment on Christmas Eve they mixed it with espresso and we drank it out of a four-spouted friendship pot. Grappa is versatile and can be enjoyed differently in its many incarnations. Slowly but surely the flavors became familiar and almost comforting.
If there’s one thing that tastes terrible it’s bad grappa, and it seems that most of what I’ve bought domestically in my lifetime has been bad. I say this because the commercial bottlings still make me pucker up and close my eyes, even after having developed a taste for the stuff. Part of the reason for this is the quality of the vinaccia - the pomace of grape skins used for distillation. Grappa is technically not brandy because it is not distilled from base wine, but rather the skins left over from pressing. Commercial distillers buy the left over musts from wineries all over Italy and it can take days before the loads are delivered and finally distilled. Quality grappa is made from vinaccia that is distilled immediately after pressing. Musts that are left to oxidize become less valuable because they lose their varietal character with passing time. Logically speaking, winemakers who also make grappa on-site are more likely to have distilled from fresher vinaccia and therefore have more flavorful grappa.
The difference between single-varietal grappa and blended commercial slop is like night and day. That $30 bottle you got at the supermarket probably burns like petrol, but a boutique grappa I recently tasted made solely from the Moscato grape smelled like flowers and fruit and went down smoothly. On September 1st, I will be replacing Susan Purnell as the spirits buyer for K&L (along with David Othenin-Girard in SoCal) and the first task on my list is to make you like grappa. In order to achieve this task I am trying to taste as much grappa as I can get my hands on and only buy the best products from producers who are serious about their craft. Two weeks ago I sampled the Marolo line-up and was very pleased. Located in Piedmont outside of Alba, they make outstanding distillates from Moscato, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo grapes - some are rich with barrel age and others clean and crisp. Some grappa purists drink only those straight off the still, while others appreciate the influence of new oak. I will leave it to you to decide which style you prefer.
Needless to say we will begin carrying these bottles immediately with some available in-store and others on a special order basis with fast delivery. I am confident that our general drinking public is going to fall head-over-heels for our quality grappa offerings, simply because they are rare and delicious. Why should you begin developing an affinity to grappa? That answer lies within you, of course. Maybe you’ve read about it in the paper, seen it in on an episode of the Sopranos, or watched a table full of Italians conclude their meal with style. Whatever your reason, I can guarantee you that whatever romantic notion you dream up, the grappas you find in our store will live up to your expectations (rather than singe your taste buds).
For more questions about grappa or other spirits, contact me at DavidDriscoll@klwines.com