Grappa Aromatization, The Virtues Of Medicinal Plants
Hands up those of you who have managed not to catch a cold in this erratic spring season. Temperature swings and unexpected snowfalls have paralyzed Italy from North to South and now that the fine weather seems to be on the doorstep, we find ourselves having to treat coughs, colds and even a few cases of flu.
The perfect remedy? A good glass of grappa, possibly containing an infusion of medicinal herbs: what better comfort drink for starting the new season in the right “spirit”!
Long before grappa made its appearance as a drink, it was used as a medicinal remedy in the dark ages. It was distilled for the purpose of producing medicines and the alchemists of the time added herbs to spirit to enhance the therapeutic effect of both principles. In the same way, herbs improved the flavour of aquavit which, owing to the far from perfect distilling techniques in use at that time, made a welcome difference.
Aromatized grappa is an interesting chapter apart because, if prepared with care, it acquires the beneficial properties of the medicinal herbs being used and becomes a proper comfort drink. Without forgetting that herbs also add a remarkable variety of pleasant tastes and aromas which further enhance the drinking experience.
THE BENEFITS EXTRACTED FROM GRAPPA
Medicinal plants owe their name to the fact that they possess pharmacological properties deriving from their chemical compounds, which become soluble when added to water-alcohol solutions, that is to say mixtures containing a high alcohol content. Let’s take a look at some of the most important of such properties, subdivided into the large families they belong to.
Sugars. As well as having an energizing effect on the organism (even though this does not apply to the quantities contained in aromatized grappa), some sugars may help regulate the bowel by acting as an osmotic-mechanical laxative.
Organic acids. Contained in significant quantities in certain drugs, these are mainly malic, oxalic, citric, succinic and tartaric acids. They have a mild laxative effect.
Phenols. This is a very large group comprising tannins, anthraquinones and phloroglucinol compounds, whose therapeutic properties range from astringent to laxative and anti-worm actions.
Triterpenoid saponins. These modify the surface tension of liquids, facilitating expectoration, diuresis and perspiration.
Steroids. This group comprises glucosides and steroidal saponins. The former counteract heart failure while the latter have effects similar to those of triterpenoid saponins.
Alkaļoids. Alkaloids stimulate respiration, increase perspiration and salivation, and act in various ways on the nervous system, the digestive system and the cardiovascular system.
Spirits and bitters. These play an important role in regaling particular flavours and aromas. From a therapeutic viewpoint, they perform various interesting functions according to the medicinal herb being used.
Resins. Resins perform important functions for the human organism with regard to the respiratory and digestive apparatuses.
THE PREPARATION OF AROMATIZED GRAPPA USING MEDICINAL HERBS
Aromatized grappa may be produced by macerating fresh or dried medicinal plants (or parts of them) or alcoholic tincture in grappa. In terms of quality, there is not a great deal of difference between using fresh or dried plants. The latter is certainly more convenient because herbs in this form are readily available in herbalist stores. On the contrary, the alcoholic tincture of a medicinal herb is prepared by macerating the plant in alcohol of a certain percentage (which varies from one plant to another) for a length of time ranging between 5 and 10 days.
In general, 5 parts of alcohol are used with 1 part of medicinal herbs. When the period of maceration is concluded, the solid parts are separated from the liquid by filtering or pressing, in order to obtain the alcoholic tincture which will then be added to the grappa in the required quantity; by law, the alcohol added with the tincture must not exceed 3% of the alcohol content of the grappa. This method is convenient because it enables the grappa to be aromatized “as you go”, starting from the same basic ingredient and adding this or that alcoholic tincture. It allows for the selection of an optimal level of aromatization by carrying out tests in small quantities and facilitates the preparation of grappa with medicinal substances.
The direct maceration of medicinal plants in grappa is less laborious and is carried out by immerging the medicinal herbs in the required proportions. Maceration times vary according to the medicinal plant being used and the alcohol percentage of the grappa (the higher it is, the stronger the solvent effect will be, with less time involved). The maceration phase must end when the aquavit has extracted the right dose of agreeable aromatic substances and before the more unpleasant ones can be released. For this reason, it is not advisable to leave the herbs in the grappa until it is consumed.
“The best way to determine the duration of the aromatization phase is to taste the grappa from time to time.”
Aromatized grappa is always sweetened more or less with sugar because this improves its taste, making it more harmonious. The law allows for a maximum addition of 2% to home-made grappa. It is even possible to add 5-6%, but as you gradually increase this substance, the end product becomes more similar to a liqueur and less like a grappa. In this case, the maximum legal quantity of sugar also corresponds to the amount that is technically recommendable. The grappa used in this type of preparation should be of good quality.
Use a good quality grappa
It is a mistake to use a second-rate grappa in the belief that its taste will be covered by aromatization. Generally speaking, the opposite is true and the end-result can be quite unpleasant. It is risky to dilute an aromatized grappa because some components may become insoluble causing the product to become murky and the harmony of its flavour to be altered. When the aromatization phase is complete, it is advisable to filter the grappa to ensure that it is perfectly clear.