When do you drink grappa?
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When should grappa be drunk? Is it always true that grappa must be offered at the end of a meal?
If such questions were asked in Italy, 9 out of 10 people would reply: « Of course, grappa should be drunk after a meal, as a digestive or, rather, as an ammazzacaffè (for our foreign readers who might not know, it is an Italian practice that involves taking a shot of alcohol after drinking coffee at the end of a meal, especially after lunch, ed.)».
However, there are numerous habits related to the consumption of grappa and they are evolving rapidly in recent years, under the pressure of alcohol mixology that increasingly offers grappa as a special ingredient in the creation of cocktails.
But let’s proceed in an orderly manner and see when and how grappa is drunk.
SMOOTH OR ON THE ROCKS?
Leaving aside the notion of grappa as something “medicinal” (utilized by alchemists in making healing essence solutions), we must think of the first examples of grappa as a “rural and virile” drink. Grappa used to be considered (alas!) as a by-product of wine, and stills were often shoddily made, in the countryside, near winemaking areas. A highly alcoholic drink was thus obtained, probably with an unpleasant smell, to be drunk only and exclusively young. A drink for real men, consumed for its energetic and energizing effects. Examples of this type of consumption has reached the ’70s and ’80s in Italy, when grappa was still drunk in this manner: one shot to be energized. Grappa, in Piedmont dialect, had a particular name: branda, from the verb brandé, which means «to go, to move vehemently». It was a well-established habit to drink a shot of grappa before going to work in the fields, early in the morning.
It is no coincidence that in the first post-war period producers of grappa could be divided into two categories: farmer-craftsmen who would make grappa at home; and the industrialists, who would distil great volumes of grappa without paying too much attention to quality. Master grappa makers will return to Italy only towards the end of the ‘70s, rediscovering this Italian distillate as an authentic expression of the soul of a winemaking territory.
Anyway, grappa is drunk smooth, never on the rocks. The presence of ice would excessively lower the temperature of the distillate, stripping off its aromatic components. Furthermore, the aqueous part would spoil intensity, texture and structure, making the grappa unrecognizable.
This does not preclude that delicate and aromatic (or flavoured) grappas, especially the young ones, can be consumed during the summer months at a slightly cooler temperature than ambient temperature. This allows alcohol to not be a prevailing taste, since it tends to be more powerful due to the heat, and it keeps the aromas of the distillate, making it possible to enjoy all of its organoleptic properties.
THE MYTH OF THE DIGESTIVE
We mentioned that grappa is almost always consumed at the end of a meal. But why? To explain this, we must go back to at least the 16th century, when Catherine de Medici brought her court of cooks, confectioners and liquor makers to Paris. Catherine has spread the noble pleasure of ending a meal with a glass of alcohol in France, a practice that probably traces back to its medical use, which considered liquors and grappas to be privileged “vehicles” that transport the healing properties of herbs and essences directly “to the spirit”.
Catherine’s refined practice has spread all over France, and it is likely that, from here, it influenced the European aristocracy. A liquor drink at the end of a meal – an ancestor of the ammazzacaffè – was in fact a “luxury” of the upper classes, a worthy finale for their lavish banquets. Improvement in sugar production, which occurred in the 18th century, gave new stimulus to the liquor sector and has pushed consumption in this direction. Common people followed suit, adding a drink of coffee to their habits: grappa was used to clean the mouth from the bitter taste and increase its “stimulating” effect.
And about the digestive? Well, we have to dispel a myth here, although this may go against our interests. Unfortunately, grappa does not have proven digestive effects. It is true that alcohol facilitates gastric juice production by widening the blood vessels; however, it also slows down digestion (especially after heavy meals), forcing the liver to work harder. But, if drank in moderation (and without attributing magical “digestive” properties) the pleasure of drinking grappa at the end of a meal is undeniable.
LA GRAPPA, QUANDO NON TE LO ASPETTI
So why don’t we rethink grappa as a drink for meditation, or as a perfect match to chocolate or to the pleasure of cigar? Grappa, especially the one aged in wood, certainly deserves an exclusively dedicated moment for it to be appreciated in its fullness. It is also being rediscovered in many other places, with the best bartenders in Italy as well as chefs using grappa in completely unusual ways, especially for mixing.
Are there examples from Marolo’s experience?
Our Matteo Barbieri, barman of the historical Cappuccino da Angiolina in Modena, has created the perfect aperitif cocktail. It is called Marolo Old Fashion and mixes Grappa di Barolo, sugar, Angostura bitter, soda and Drambuie (Scottish liquor with honey).
> READ THE INTERVIEW WITH MATTEO BARBIERI
Even more daring was Luigi Barberis, barman and mixologist at the Caffè degli Artisti in Alessandria, today bar manager for Identità Golose. For Marolo he created a cocktail “playlist” that can be enjoyed at any time of the day. Tra le braccia di Morfeo (In the arms of Morpheus) is the name of the cocktail and it uses Milla, a chamomile-based liquor with grappa, with Vermouth Ulrich Extra Dry and a drop of peat Scotch whisky: the result is a sensually captivating after-dinner drink.
> DISCOVER THE COCKTAILS MADE BY LUIGI BARBERIS
We want to end this roundup with a treat, showing grappa’s potential in cooking. We must head to the restaurant Il Centro in Priocca, located in the province of Cuneo. Here, Michelin-starred chef Elide Mollo and his son Giampiero Cordero have created grappa granita. It is divided into two parts: one with Grappa di Moscato Apres and the other with Grappa di Barolo 9 anni. Served after the cheeses, it balances out the fatty flavour, cleaning the mouth and preparing it for dessert. Interesting? Go and try it!
> READ THE POST ABOUT THE GRAPPA GRANITA SERVED AT THE RESTAURANT IL CENTRO