With a history that stems back to the distillation processes of Friuli in 530 AD, Grappa is an Italian spirit that has evolved from a poor man’s drink to a global hit. Using the remaining elements of wine-producing grapes, clear water, and distilling equipment, the 10th-century scholars of Solerno seized the distilling knowledge of Arabic alchemists to create a spirit using the pomace of wine grapes. With centuries of distillation advances, Grappa has grown to become a universally-renowned spirit.
If you’re wondering what Grappa is, it’s handy to have a brief insight before we delve into its history. Grappa is a clear Italian spirit that comes from the pomace of grapes. Depending on the manufacturing techniques used, the distillate ranging from 77% to 68% ABV is collected and bottled as Grappa. Thanks to modern distillation methods, modern-day Grappa producers retain precise control of the process, which allows for single-variety Grappa to be produced, capturing the aroma and flavour of the specific grape variety
Although it’s difficult to determine exactly when Grappa first developed, contemporary historians believe it has Middle Eastern roots. Between the 8th-century and the 12th-century, Moorish invaders made their way through Europe, eventually reaching the Italian island of Sicily. When their knowledge passed onto the monks of Salerno, they began distilling medicinal herbs.
While the early Grappa industry was ill-defined, the spirit soon solidified its own identity in the 18th century. Although the word Grappa delineates from the Latin word for grapes, the term wasn’t used until the 1950s. Interestingly, this was around the time that it made its way from being a poor man’s drink to a highly-coveted spirit.
Arguably, Grappa’s evolution into a coveted drink is easier to pin down. It was during the post-WWII economic boom in Italy that the demand for the country’s fine cuisine began. With a historic and refined appeal that spoke to the culinary masterminds of younger nations, Italian flavours reached the global stage. While weaving its way into restaurants alongside dishes such as pasta and pizza, Grappa garnered popularity amongst those who preferred the discerning notes of a truly-established drink.
The same historians who question Grappa’s ancient origins believe the drink would have come into its own around the 12th century. At this stage in Italy’s history, distilling efforts employed the use of water, making it easier to make a spirit from pomace. By the 17th century, the distilling techniques that resulted in producing multiple bottles of the beverage were recorded throughout Jesuit communities. While it may seem surprising that a strict religious order played a strong part in producing Italian grappa, they definitely weren’t against enjoying alcohol of any kind.
Contemporary evidence points toward the drink being only a few centuries old. What historians know is that farmers unable to buy wine would indulge in the spirit throughout the day. While battling against the heat in fields, they would throw it down their necks for respite and enjoyment. Thanks to the alcohol’s cost-friendly nature, this practice was commonplace until the 1960s. From that point onward, the drink took such a sophisticated turn it even resulted in Grappa cocktails. It was no longer something you’d pour down your neck to cool off, but rather a high-end spirit served in fine dining restaurants.
It’s useful to think of Grappa’s history in the same way that you think of gin. While gin was once the poor person’s drink in England, today it’s a delectable beverage that features in cocktails and alcohol cabinets worldwide.
From around the 1960s onward, those with an interest in producing the spirit began investigating different ways to distil it. Initially, this involved using modern techniques. For example, applying a bain-marie to the distilling process.
As of 1979, manufacturers began to experiment with different types of grape, delectable fruit infusions, and oak cask ageing. Eventually, all of this experimentation lead to the many forms of Grappa you’ll find today. For those who prefer a heavy and aromatic experience, drinks from grapes such as Muscat and Malvasia strike the right tone. Or, those who want a botanical experience can try variations featuring herbs and other such infusions.
Like any tasty spirit, Grappa now attracts a cult following. This includes Italian drinks experts, who are always looking for new ways to translate their home country’s spirit into delightful forms.
One modern way to enjoy it is through making Grappa cocktails. As it belongs to the Italian spirit family, it works well in everyday classics such as Long Island Iced Tea and Cuba Libre. Obviously, the taste is slightly different, but that makes it all the more exciting. Thanks to their refreshing nature, such cocktails make long hot Melbourne evenings more enjoyable.
If you’re looking to take a simple approach to your Grappa cocktail, try combining it with tonic water and a slice of any citrus fruit. It tastes just as crisp as a gin and tonic but brings a slightly more intense flavour to the forefront of your palette.
Other cocktails where you can use Grappa as your substitute spirit of choice include the Mojito, French 75, and any drink that uses Champagne as a base. For an extra-Italian experience, why not substitute your fizz for Prosecco? You can buy Grappa that’s made using Prosecco grape pomace, after all.
While Grappa was once the drink of poor men, today it’s a novel feature on cocktail menus and in classy bars. If you’re in the Melbourne and Warrandyte area, why not buy some of your own? At the Pietro Gallo Estate, we’re always happy to show our customers how we make Grappa. Situated just 20km from Melbourne and nestled in the Warrandyte hills, our estate is here for you to enjoy your very own Grappa experience.