I’ve always thought of grappa as something old men drink, a rough spirit with lots of burn and little flavor, like a cheap vodka. The Italian spirit, distilled from pomace—the grape skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over after grapes are pressed for wine making—has historically been a workingman’s drink, cheap and strong. In the last several years, though, better grappa has been making its way to the U.S.; Nonino’s much-praised single-varietal grappas have been available for a while now, Chicago’s Rhine Hall has been making grappa since it opened in 2013, and there are at least a few grappa options at most good liquor stores.
A year or so ago I was sent a couple of grappa samples from Pisoni, a winery in the Trentino region of Italy that’s been around since 1852; like Nonino they make a number of single-varietal grappas. (I got one from the chardonnay grape and an aged grappa that’s not labeled by varietal, the two that are available in Chicago.) I tasted both, was pleasantly surprised by their delicate flavors, and then mostly forgot about them. Recently, though, I was reading a book on eating and drinking in Rome by Elizabeth Minchilli, one of the biggest advocates of Nonino grappa. In a chapter titled “Learning to love grappa,” Minchilli details her passion for the spirit and provides a couple of recipes for grappa cocktails.
I didn’t have the ingredients for the cocktails Minchilli recommended, but she did make me want to give the grappa I had another try. I started looking online for other cocktail recipes, especially simple ones that wouldn’t completely obliterate the flavor of the grappa. The website for Rhine Hall, which lists several cocktail recipes for their grappas, provided a grappa sour recipe that looked appealing. Better yet was the “grapparita” from Difford’s Guide, which is similar but substitutes limoncello for the simple syrup. Not only did I like the idea of using another Italian ingredient in my cocktail, I had some on hand; Pisoni also makes limoncello and had sent me a small bottle along with the grappas.
I also googled “grapparita” to see if there were other recipes, and found that a Texas restaurant owner trademarked the term more than 20 years ago after inventing a drink with that name. The recipe calls for one part grappa, one part orange-flavored vodka, one part orange liqueur, and a little lime—all it has in common with the Difford’s recipe is the grappa. That recipe notes that it’s adapted from a drink “discovered in 2005 at Alfredo’s of Rome” in New York City that calls for sour mix; either it slowly made its way to New York from Texas, evolving all the way, or someone at Alfredo’s just liked the sound of “grapparita.”
The Difford’s version of the grapparita sounded more appealing, so I mixed one up, along with a grappa sour. I used the unaged grappa for the cocktails, and its mineral, almost savory flavor came through in both. Straight, it’s a clean, smooth liquor with piney notes; the aged grappa tastes similar but with more fruity aromas and caramel flavors. I also tried the limoncello over ice, and while liqueurs aren’t usually my thing, this is a nice, not-too-sweet version with a pronounced lemon aroma and flavor.
In both cocktails, the mineral flavors of the grappa came through, creating light drinks with a slightly vegetal quality—which is more pleasant than it sounds. While grappa is different than any other spirit I’ve tasted, in cocktails it’s most similar to an herbaceous, savory gin. The cocktails tasted similar to each other, probably because the recipes are quite similar, but while I liked both I slightly preferred the extra complexity that limoncello added to the grapparita.
I’d also come across a Guy Fieri recipe that reversed the proportions of grappa to limoncello—and immediately rejected it because in addition to two ounces of limoncello, it called for an ounce and a half of simple syrup and only a little lemon juice, which sounded disgustingly sweet. But I was intrigued by the idea of changing the proportions to create a drink that’s not as strong, much like a reverse manhattan (two parts vermouth to one part whiskey instead of vice versa). I tried reversing the proportions in the grapparita recipe I’d used, skipping the egg white and topping it off with sparkling water to lighten things up even more. It turned out to be dangerously drinkable—and probably would have been even better topped off with sparkling wine, which I’ll try next time. And if you wanted to do a local version of this very Italian drink, you could use Rhine Hall’s grappa and CH Distillery‘s limoncello (which is also probably the best limoncello I’ve tried).
Grapparita (adapted slightly from Difford’s Guide)
2 oz grappa
1 oz limoncello
1 oz lemon juice
1 egg white
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake; add ice and shake again. Double strain into a cocktail glass.
2 oz limoncello
1 oz grappa
1 oz lemon juice
Sparkling water (or sparkling wine)
Add the first three ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake; double strain into a rocks glass and top with sparkling water or wine.