The common preconception is that grappa is harsh and
biting, says Brian Casey, who is in charge of Estate’s wine
and liquor lists. “People jokingly refer to it as ‘jet fuel.’ They’re
surprised to discover that it can be delicate and pleasant.” He
mentions the accessibility of grappas made from varietals
used in dessert wines and the popularity of versions infused
with berries, honey and even rose petals.
Casey, who had to educate himself before he could
convert customers, shares what he learned about how to
properly taste grappa from his distributor’s rep, Chloé
Stanzione of Winebow. “Don’t bury your nose in the glass.
Keep the two about four inches apart so you pick up the
aromatics. Gently roll the liquid around rather vigorously,
swirl and then sip.” Michael Muscardini, a local wine and
grappa maker, recommends stemware specially designed
for this—a miniature flute with a bulge in the middle.
Grappa is usually served as a digestivo after a meal or
as caffè corretto, a shot added to espresso before drinking
or swirled in the empty cup with the remaining crema for
a rousing finish. But last year, Estate featured Muscardini
Cellars’ (Kenwood, Calif.) Grappa di Sangiovese paired
with house-smoked sturgeon and trout mousse and fennel
three ways as part of a multicourse dinner that explored the
possibilities of incorporating the spirit into the meal.
“We found that it pairs surprisingly well with food,” says
Casey. “Salty, savory things were a good match, especially
cured meats, smoked fish and pickled vegetables.”
IN THE KITCHEN
PHOTO CREDIT: Opposite, Estate; above, Jessie Eisner-Kleyle
Chef Kevin Appleton has also been going in another
direction with grappa, using it as an ingredient. He’s resident
chef and culinary instructor with Vom Fass in Madison, Wis.
The retail chain sells casked vinegars, oils, wines, liqueurs
“I like cooking with spirits, and grappa’s become one of
my favorites,” Appleton says. “It has a little fruitiness, a hint
of grapes and some acidity, and brings in rounded background
notes that complement the star flavors. The aged ones can add
a woody smokiness. It’s great for finishing dishes in place of
wine or brandy.”
OPPOSITE: A grappa flight of three 1 oz. selections is a regular feature at Estate.
ABOVE: Kevin Appleton adds grappa at the end of a recipe to maintain the
alcoholic presence that helps carry the other flavors, such as balsamic vinegar
in these chocolate truffles.
Every type of grappa has its own distinctive character, and
it’s important, he says, to tailor your choice to the application.
He’s been experimenting and matchmaking and is especially
pleased with what a chardonnay grappa does in his version
of an amatriciana sauce, and the interaction of an Amarone
grappa, added at the end to maintain the alcoholic presence
that helps carry the other flavors, with balsamic vinegar in a
At Devotay, a Mediterranean-themed restaurant in Iowa
City, Iowa, the grappa comes from Cedar Ridge Winery and
Distillery, 20 minutes away. Sourcing local is a defining element
of chef/owner Kurt Michael Friese’s approach, and buying from
a neighbor is both sustainable and affordable.
This smooth, elegant grappa is poured and simmered. It
goes into a caffeinated cocktail called First Morning along
with espresso, Cointreau, amoretto and muddled raisins. But
Friese is more likely to splash some in the saute pan in place
of brandy or cognac. “Because it’s less sweet, I have more
control over the flavor,” he says. “I like to deglaze with grappa—
the alcoholic edge disappears as soon as it hits the heat.”
He adds it to the braising liquid for lamb shanks, and notes
that it’s well-suited for cream and tomato-based sauces. “Make
dishes your usual way and with grappa,” advises Friese. “Taste
them side by side and decide which you like better.”
You might discover that grappa’s the way to go.
LAURA TAXEL IS A CLEVELAND-BASED JOURNALIS T AND AU THOR WHO WRITES ABOUT FOOD,
CHEFS AND THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS FOR CONSUMER AND TRADE PUBLICATIONS.