Even as our collective drinking palate continues to develop to appreciate spirits once considered too challenging (like smoky peaty single malts whiskies, rustic and flavorful mezcal, and bitter European liqueurs), we still may have a ways to go until people learn to love grappa.
Grappa (also known as marc or agua ardiente) is unaged distillate made from the solids leftover from winemaking called pomace -- a mass of skins, pulp, and seeds strained of the juice fermentation process. The spirit is simply a brandy, but the fear of its brash intensity with funky flavor swagger and high proof is not completely unfounded. There is a good amount of poorly distilled homemade and commercial grappa (as you'll find in every liquor category), the kind that St. George Spirits distiller once described as, "What we give dinner guests who don't want to go home."
But at Bar 888 inside the InterContinental Hotel, wine guy John Wight is working to showcase how interesting and versatile the spirit can be when made right.
With a rotating selection of grappa flights ($15-$28) on the menu that highlight different grapes, infusions, and even the effects of barrel aging, the most fascinating way to try them is in the house cocktails. In particular, La Donna è Forte ($12, Grappa Po' di Poli Traminer Grappa, Nonino Amaro, Campari) is an excellent adaptation of the classic Negroni. Made with Campari, a dry and floral Gewurztraminer based grappa, and grape based bitter liqueur with tons of complimentary orange flavor (also made by a grappa producer) it is an exceptional adaptation. The cocktail allows the grappa to be front and center, but at the same time pleasantly weaves together the citrus and spices in the liqueurs. It will convince you to forgive any grappa past offenses.
With the large number of wineries in California, you'd think we'd be rich with grappa, but not so. Thankfully a few local distilleries like 1512 Spirits, Charbay, Germain-Robin, and St. George are producing smooth and expressive variations to fill that gap, many from single grape varieties.
You may not be ready for a glass of grappa straight up, but Wight and his crew of bartenders at Bar 888 are knowledgeable and at the ready with a large collection when you are. In the meantime, dip your foot into the pool with a cocktail. Easing into grappa might have you lingering after dinner longer than you meant to -- or that your hosts wanted you to.
La Donna è Forte
By Erik Hammermaster
1 oz. Grappa Po' di Poli Traminer Grappa
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Nonino Amaro Liqueur
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir until cold and strain into a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with orange peel.
Bar 888, 888 Howard (at 5th), inside the InterContinental Hotel, 616-6566