Everything You Need to Know About Grappa

This underdog Italian digestif is gaining popularity in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Hello Grappa
Photo courtesy of Hello Grappa

If you’ve had any experience with grappa, it likely came at the end of a meal at an Italian restaurant after a waiter handed you a shot glass of clear liquid. Grappa has been a beloved spirit in Italy for more than 200 years, yet its reputation has been misunderstood in the U.S.

“Grappa is an underdog spirit,” says Scott Rosenbaum, a certified instructor for The Wine & Spirit Education Trust and ambassador for Hello Grappa. “It has a reputation historically as being a spirit full of burn and not much character and that couldn’t be further from the modern sensibility. Keep an open mind and you’ll constantly be delighted by what you find.”

Over the past five years, however, grappa imports have ramped up, providing an increasing number of options. Grappa is no longer a mystery spirit you should be wary of, it’s something you should experiment with. Here’s what you need to know about grappa.

What is grappa and what is it made from?

Grappa is a brandy from Italy made from the skins of wine grapes, which is called pomace. Typically, brandy can be made from grapes like cognac or armagnac, or brandy can be made from fruit.

“Pomace brand is made from co-product of wine production, made from grape skins, seeds, and stalks,” Rosenbaum explains. “You can basically upcycle it into another product—it makes use of something that would otherwise be discarded.”

Where does grappa come from?

According to Rosenbaum, the first recorded instance of grappa being produced was in the state of Lombardy in northern Italy in the 1600s.

“Grappa was kind of born out of necessity,” he says. “The Napoleonic Wars and unification of Italy meant the common people had a hard century. The king imposed large taxes, so people would pay taxes with wine. They had this leftover co-product and that’s what they’d keep for themselves. That’s essentially why grappa has a reputation of being rustic or fiery.”

In the 17th century, chemists developed a distillation method that allowed people to derive alcohol from solid pomace rather than just liquid wine. In 1779, the first grappa distillery, the Nardini Distillery, opened near Venice, Italy, where it still makes grappa today.

How strong is grappa and what does it taste like?

“That’s like asking what wine tastes like,” Rosenbaum laughs. “Grappa has the capacity to display a multitude of flavors.” In fact, it can be made with white or red grapes, could be aged in oak or cherry or chestnut, flavored with camomile or rue—versions vary wildly.

One common thread is that it will always taste spirituous, since typically grappa has 40% ABV and, by law, it can’t be lower than 37.5%. Essentially, don’t treat it like just drinking a beer.

Grappa stills
Grappa stills | Photo courtesy of Hello Grappa

What’s the difference between brandy and grappa?

Brandy is the umbrella term under which grappa falls. Basically, brandy is a family of spirits that has three sub categories: fruit brandy, grape brandy, and pomace brandy. Pomace brandy includes grappa and also Marc from France and Orujo from Spain. “Think of brandy as a sibling to those things, and as a cousin to cognac and armagnac,” Rosenbaum says.

How do you drink grappa?

Like most things, Rosenbaum says the best way to enjoy grappa depends on what type of drinker you are. “If you don’t like tequila or gin straight, you might not enjoy grappa neat,” he says. “But that’s the traditional way they serve it—as a digestif in Italy.”

But if you’re more into cocktails, it would be great in place of vodka in an Espresso Martini. He also recommends aged grappa in a Sidecar, or aromatic grappa in a Negroni in place of gin. You’ll also see it in a caffè corretto mixed with espresso. “This is your Italian version of an Irish coffee,” Rosenbaum says.

How popular is grappa in the U.S.?

In recent years, the popularity of grappa is on the rise, thanks to the broad appeal of other Italian spirits like Aperol, Campari, and various amari. “The last two years, there’s been an uptick with the amount of grappa exported to the U.S. in terms of volume,” Rosenbaum says. “The value of grappa is much higher and people are having less of a problem spending more money on grappa.”

What are the best brands of grappa to start with?

Rosenbaum recommends three different producers in order to be introduced to the spirit. Poli Grappa di Moscato maes a single-varietal grappa with some complex aromatics. “They made a moscato grappa that smells like flowers and fresh fruit,” he says.

The second recommendation is Gra’it by Distillerie Bonollo, which is an unaged grappa made from many different grape varieties from all over Italy. That is a bit more affordable, clocking in at less than $40 a bottle.

Lastly, Rosenbaum suggests Giare from Marzadro Distillery. “It’s lovely, aged for three years in oak barrels,” he says. “You won’t get a buttery Napa chardonnay taste. Instead, you'll have more sweet spice, vanilla, and cedar aromas.”

He adds: “My advice to anyone who wants to explore the category is try often and try as many different styles as you can.”

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Nickolaus Hines is a contributor to Thrillist.

Jess Mayhugh is the editorial director of Food & Drink for Thrillist.