"Jet fuel." That's what Americans think grappa tastes like, and that explains its failure to launch, surmised Alessandro Boselli of importer Premium Brands.
Yet the craft spirit scene has been pretty accommodating of drinks falling on the flavor spectrum from "acquired taste" to "openly hostile" (not unlike the somm-driven segment of the wine scene, come to think of it ...). Here in New York, we have bars devoted to tequila, mezcal, bitters, even baiju, a Chinese spirit that tastes like chicken feed fermented in a mud ditch (because that's what it is).
The problem with grappa is not specifically that it can taste a bit sharp. It's that American spirits connoisseurs think it tastes that way because it's cheap and, worse, that it all tastes the same. By contrast, its distilled grape-based brethren Cognac comes in bottles so nice collectors buy them on eBay—empty. Cognac has celebrities. It has appellations: The best one is called Grande Champagne. It has classifications: The worst one is called V.S., for "very special." Cognac grew 15 percent in the U.S. in just the past year, reaching record sales of more than 5 million cases here.
But grappa claims something no other spirit can: The best versions are literally the essence of Italy's finest wines, and distillers are beginning to realize that these expressions are the way forward. Cognac is an extraordinary spirit distilled from rotgut wine. Grappa, by contrast, is distilled from pomace—wine refuse—but that pomace is still of the same fruit that found its way into coveted wine bottles. And grappa distillers seeking to rocket to the highest altitudes of the drinks world are learning to make and market it accordingly.
Boselli poured for me a range of "varietal" grappas from Marolo distillery, located in Alba, in the heart of Piedmont. The flagship, naturally, is Barolo grappa, which distills Nebbiolo pomace from the Barolo wines of Aldo Conterno, Cavallotto, Giuseppe Mascarello, Giacomo Conterno, Paolo Scavino, Massolino, Elio Altare and other giants. Contra the notion of grappa as a clear spirit, the Barolo grappas are oak-aged and -hued, with bottlings of four, nine, 12, 15 and 20 years of aging. Marolo's Brunello grappa, made in aged and unoaked versions, derives from Sangiovese pomace of Lisini, Colombini, Valdicava, Siro Pacenti and others.
Can you really distinguish Barolo from Brunello at 80-plus proof, when the "fruit" is grape husks left over from the wines they made? I concede you'd have to spend a bit of time with each. But when we moved on to the Moscato and Gewürztraminer grappas, the aromatic "tells" of each variety were unmistakable, with all the orange blossom and apricot of the former contrasting the grapefruit and rose petal of the latter. In 2016, Marolo began separately distilling and aging single-cru Barolo grappas, including Brunate, Bussia, Cannubi, Colonello, Ravera and Romirasco. Some producers even release grappa "ghosts" of individual wines: Antinori Tignanello grappa, Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura grappa, Gaja Sperss grappa. Last year also marked a more unified effort to rarefy and recognize grappa, as the Italian government designated the first-ever grappa DOP, Grappa di Barolo: Legally, this must be distilled in Piedmont from Barolo pomace.
Like most spirits, carelessly made grappa just tastes like ethanol. But with these encouraging refinements, grappa may finally achieve liftoff.
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.