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From the dregs to high society

Despite its pleb origin, grappa is the fashion statement of the moment, threatening to downgrade even vodka and tequila


THE TASTE could be heaven or it could be hell. Moonshine or white lightning, the serrated edge of numbing taste or the sensuous sublime, grappa is fast becoming the poison of choice of trendoids across the globe, gaining chic trappings, and creating hip new social mores as it climbs up the social ladder.

At best, it plays a delicious Russian roulette with your taste buds... an unexpected explosion, fire and raw after-taste. At worst it has been likened to cheap kerosene. Historically grappa belongs to the social underbelly of the wine press — it has a lineage that is humble unlike its more pedigreed sisters, cognac or brandy.

But for the urban junkie, grappa is the fashion statement of the moment, tossed back as casually as caprinhas or cosmopolitans were a season ago, threatening to downgrade tequila shots and vodka tubes from wickedly dangerous to just wannabe.

Crystal clear

In the hierarchy of liquors, grappa fits in somewhere between schnapps and brandy, but its crystal clear colour and high alcohol content could give vodka a serious challenge. The name grappa itself has obfuscated origins. One scribe says its descent can be traced to the Latin grappapolus, meaning bunch of grapes.

Another school holds grappa comes from the gothic Germanic krappa and I haven't a clue what that means while the Italians are clear that grappa comes from grappa, Italian for stalk.

The Italians have had the last word on grappa. Like tequila comes from Mexico even though blue agave may be found elsewhere, or like zubrowska (Polish whisky matured with bison grass) is always from Poland, even if bison hair grass is found elsewhere, or champagne is from Champagne, grappa is from Italy even if the method and grapes can be found anywhere.

The French themselves have not dared to trespass... French grappa is known as mace.

New status

But like tequila, grappa now has a new respectability. From being the cure-all for toothache and stomach ache, it has now seized the high ground of the great aquavits of life. In the Italian Alps, the peasants of Friuli, where grappa originated, may have the last laugh on that one.

Originally called grappa filuferru, for the lead wire that told the peasants where the absolutely illegal stuff was hidden, it was a wannabe brandy from the last residue pressing of wine grapes.

Non-discriminatory and democratic, grappa was made with any available grape and any bits and pieces of stalks lying around. Now it has evolved into a single grape, no seeds, no stalk smoothness at home in lounges, bars, and clubs. But despite being an aquavit, a brandy more than a wine, grappa carries well in permutations and combinations, defying purists who may want to confine it to the after-dinner hours.

Serve it in style

The Wine Spectator recommends you serve it with a sugar cube thrown in to make it deceptively sweet and watch it corrode with raw intent. Or try it retro-chic, served chilled with two olives thrown in martini style. Or do the mojito thing with lime and mint, but be warned you'll have a Molotov cocktail on your hands if you are an inexperienced snifter. Or have it the way Italians of the old school do — a morning wake-up call with a shot of grappa and dark espresso. They call it café corretto, coffee spoilt with grappa.

Grappa is created in flacons and bottles that would give perfumes a run for their money.

Now, grappa bottles, as if to make up for the humble origins of their contents, are complex, long necked, twisted, transparent, and definitely flamboyant.

Hand-blown bottles

Even Murano does grappa bottles; in a move of inverted snobbery someone decreed that the best grappa came in hand-blown bottles. And of course, the humble origin is humble no longer. Now grappa comes in pretty flavours — strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla, in beautiful hand-blown bottles and with big names like Nardini of Italy and Jacob Polis, made from Nebbiolo, Nonino grapes with prices that can cross $500.

There is now even a Merlot grappa for lovers of red wine who want to experiment. But to really enjoy your grappa, don't get too stylish. Look for Friuli on the label, look for unflavoured, look for an edgy rawness, and a wasabe-like fire that hits you when you least expect it.

That's the grappa for big boys and big girls. Have it at your own risk.

GEETA RAO

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