Grappa is an Italian pomace brandy—a brandy made by distilling the leftover skins, stems, seeds, and pulp of grapes (the pomace) after the grapes have been pressed for wine-making or some other purpose.
As is the case with wines, the flavor of a grappa depends upon the types and quality of grapes used, as well as the particulars of the distillation process. Traditionally, most grappas are un-aged and therefore clear or with very light color-traces from the original pomace. But more recently, grappas are being barrel-aged and, as such, typically take on colors ranging from pale yellow to a reddish brown. Grappa is traditionally enjoyed as an after-dinner drink or as a digestif. But it is also used to “spike” coffee. When used to flavor espresso, for example, the result is called “caffè corretto” (“corrected coffee”).
“Grappa” is now a protected name in the European Union. And in order for a product to be legally labeled “grappa,” it must meet the following criteria: It must be produced in Italy (or San Marino or the Italian part of Switzerland); it must be made from pomace; and the fermentation and distillation must occur on the pomace—without added water. And it is the third criterion which makes grappa production unique. Because grappa distillation must occur on solid matter, a steam process is employed since direct heat would cause the pomace to burn. And because the woody elements of the pomace—the stems and seeds—must be co-fermented with the sugar-rich remnant juice in the skins, a small amount of methanol, which is much more toxic than ethanol, is produced in the process. (Pomace-derived “moonshine,” then, would be particularly hazardous). That toxic methanol must be removed during the distillation process. Consequently, Italian law requires that winemakers sell their pomace to grappa-makers who then produce a safe, palatable product.
Distillation as a process is ancient; it can be traced back to the 1st century C.E. But distillation for the purpose of producing alcoholic beverages dates to 8th -century Levant and Persian cultures, the technology likely making its way to Europe during the Crusades. By the 12th century, the School of Salerno (the Western World’s first medical school, situated on the Tyrrhenian Sea in the south Italian city of Salerno) was reliably conducting distillation. Circa 1300 – 1400, water was introduced as a coolant in the distillation process. And around the year 1600, the Jesuits of Spain, Italy, and Germany studied and codified the techniques for making brandy/grappa, their techniques being employed until well into the 20th century. The modernization of grappa distillation did not occur until the late 1970s, when steam distillation (bain-marie) improved upon the older and oftentimes problematic direct-heat method of distilling solid pomace.
But in addition to advancements in distillation, modern grappa production has also made significant strides to improve flavor. The Marzadro Distillery ( http://www.marzadro.it ), headquartered in Trentino, Italy, for example, introduced the concept of aging grappa in successive casks of oak, acacia, ash, and cherrywood in order to enhance flavor complexity.
Today, there are many “boutique” grappas. And the fancier the grappa, the fancier the glass from which it is drunk: Traditionally, grappa was drunk in a shot-glass; but increasingly, it is drunk from a small, stemmed, tulip-inspired glass.
Pomace brandy is not unique to Italy. Other countries have similar liquors, albeit with different names: “aragh” in Persia (Iran); “orujo” in Spain; “marc” in France; “chacha” in Georgia; “rakia” or “rakija” in Albania; “loza” or “rakija” in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia; “bagaceira” in Portugal; “tsipouro” in Greece, etc.