On grappka

Pub date March 14, 2007

A small peeve of mine is grappa served at or near room temperature, as if it’s cough syrup. Perhaps I am churlish to complain about tepid grappa when having the chance to order grappa at all is a rare treat; even many Italian restaurants don’t offer it. On the other hand, ice-cold grappa is simply sublime — at least for those of us who find it so — and keeping the bottle stashed in the freezer under the bar doesn’t seem like a terrible burden. Can it be that grappa is widely, if dimly, assumed to be just another brandy, like cognac, and, like cognac, is best appreciated in a lukewarmish state?

I keep my own bottle of grappa (at the moment a moscato distillation, from Italy’s Antica Distilleria Negroni) in the freezer, where it was recently joined by a bottle of Swan’s Neck grape vodka. Grape vodka has been, until recently, a minor curiosity whose center of production was France. Most vodkas are produced from grains and potatoes; grape vodka, by contrast, is distilled from wine. (Swan’s Neck uses French wines made from undisclosed varietals and distills them in traditional copper alembics.) The unaged spirit is something of a cross, then, between cognac (distilled from wine but aged in oak) and grappa (distilled from fermented grape-crush remnants instead of wine but not aged), though its mountain-stream clearness seems to put it nearer grappa on the spectrum of spirits. I find myself thinking of it as grappka.

And how do the two cousins compare? I thought I would find little or no difference between them, but a brief taste test revealed that grappa and grappka can be pretty easily distinguished. The latter, despite its vinous origins, is still a vodka and, even when chilled overnight in the freezer, retains vodka’s distinctive edge, smooth and precise as a just-sharpened chef’s knife. And grappa is still grappa and still has a slightly unkempt bouquet of fruitiness, like that of a neglected bramble patch heavy with berries.

I could not say I prefer one over the other, especially when both are ice-cold. The grappka has a grander pedigree and, while potent, is silken in the throat. Grappa is fierier and maybe a little cruder, as befits its roots as a leftover; it must be one of the world’s most lovable overachievers. For digestif honors, I call it a dead heat.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com