One of the very first jobs I had involved the following, grinding daily routine. Get into the office, make editor strong coffee, go fetch editor's Gitanes, stare at a screen for several hours, watch editor get up, smile and ask the following question: "I think that's enough work for the day, shall we repair for lunch?"
The rest of the day would be spent in a pleasant blur, unless he added the chilling addendum: "And today feels very much like a grappa day." It was always delivered with a knowing wink of downright mischievousness. And that's when it all went horribly wrong. Within hours there'd be arguments, fisticuffs, large amounts of general abuse and some disgustingly obscene swearing - all because my editor had felt the need for a medicinal grappa or two at the end of his lunch. During the course of our joint tenure, we managed to get banned from virtually every Italian restaurant within a two mile radius.
But that was fifteen years ago - and the average grappa proffered in those days couldn't really be said to have been truly authentic. Indeed it probably had more in common with methylated spirits than it did with proper Italian grappa.
These days much more interesting grappas are making their way to the UK - grappas that have every bit as much complexity, subtlety and style as top class vodkas, gins and even Cognacs. Gone are the days when grappa was just grappa. Now you get single-varietal grappas, single-estate grappas, twice, thrice and even four times distilled grappas. In short, they've gone up-market and are now a million miles away from the harsh rocket fuel that sent me into mental and physical no-man's-land.
Grappa is essentially a by-product of winemaking and is made all over Italy. It was first made, however, in the village of Bassano del Grappa, north of Venice - hence the name. The process is relatively simple. Once the local grapes have been pressed to make wine, the skins and mulch or 'pomace' as it is called, is taken off and distilled in a copper vat - much like whisky. The spirit comes off the still at around 90% proof, after which it is usually 'cut' (water is added), to reduce it to a more palatable 38% or so. Most grappa is then simply bottled and sold clear. Some, however, is aged, often in little oak butts, giving it a darker, amber colouring depending on how long it has been sitting in the barrels.
It's a little more difficult to sum up how it tastes and there's huge debate over whether you can taste the grape variety in the final spirit. Some say that flavour is stripped away during the distillation, making it similar to vodka. Personally I think grappa has more flavour than vodka. In essence, clear grappas taste spirity, grapey and generally have a citrus and peach flavour profile. The older versions, aged in oak, tend to have a nuttiness and more vanilla edge.
I recently tasted a grappa that was based on the Muscat grape from a fantastic producer, Luigi Francoli in the Piedmont region (it's only available in bars, but it's worth searching out). It had a honeyed floral scent, albeit diluted, like the aroma in a wine made from the same grape.
In addition to tasting it alone, one of the best ways to try grappa is in a cocktail. Like vodka, it makes a great base, only with more flavour. A Cosmopolitan made with a delicious young grappa that I tried recently slipped down too comfortably - and a Grappatini (grappa Martini), can be sublime. So put dodgy Italian trattorias firmly to the back of your mind, get your hands on some grappa and get mixing.
TWO TO TRY OUT FOR STARTERS
-- GRAPPA RISERVA TOSOLINI
(500ml, €33.80, Berry Brothers & Rudd)
This almost clear Riserva has a bitter sweet finish. Great on its own but also a brilliant base for cocktails.
-- GRAPPA DEL BOSCO
(500ml, €33.80, Lea & Sandeman)
This is actually made with red Syrah grapes and I think you can tell from the hint of brambles and slightly fruitier nature of this grappa.
Words Chris Orr