What Is Grappa, And Why You Should Be Drinking It

How one Brooklyn winery is challenging everything you know about grappa

Working out of a 19th-century shipping warehouse at the end of a pier in Brooklyn, Colin Alevras is busy tending to barrels of Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc at Red Hook Winery. Before greeting a midweek customer at the tasting counter, Alevras, the shop foreman, stops to check another barrel—but this one isn't filled with wine. It's filled with grappa that's been aging at the winery since 2012.

Floral and smooth, it's not the Italian firewater you might be used to throwing back after a big bowl of spaghetti at your neighborhood Italian joint. This small-batch, Brooklyn-based grappa will challenge everything you know about the storied spirit.

Distilled from pomace, or the grape seeds and stems left over from winemaking, grappa tends to get a bad rap. "I definitely get plenty of gasoline jet fuel jokes," Alevras admits. But after building his own machinery and experimenting for four years, this former cook is challenging the status quo. For one, Alevras has designed his own distilling equipment. Estimating that there are fewer than 20 grappa producers in the U.S. and even fewer books on the subject, he didn't have a lot of resources. So he built his own pot stills and refined his designs through trial and error. "It's the world's best man cave," he says of the winery.

Alevras uses small-scale pot stills to distill the grappa as opposed to the massive columns typical in commercial production. Unlike the conventional route, distilling in pot stills is slower and results in a spirit with more flavor, viscosity and body.

The other key difference is that Alevras barrel-ages his grappa, which mellows the spirit and adds a dark honey color. The barrels "pull out flavors that wine could never access" and take the spirit to "a whole other level," imparting oak and caramel notes, a little tannin and peachy-apricot tones to the finished product.

Grappa distilling at Red Hook Winery

And unlike other distilled spirits, every barrel is unique. The end goal is not to achieve the same flavor profile with each batch, like you would with whiskey or vodka, but to celebrate the different characteristics that come from distilling Riesling pomace versus that of Merlot. Lighting up at how much fun Sauvignon Blanc is, Alevras extols the variety. "It's very appealing to me as an ex-cook and a winemaker," he says.

It's not just about cultivating different characteristics by grape varietal but also about unlocking flavors in the grapes that don't come through in winemaking. Because it takes one ton of pressed skins to make five to six bottles, the process really concentrates the flavors and distills something totally unique.

"It's something you can sip. When it's warm out, an ice cube for a little dilution and a lemon twist are nice. This was never envisioned as a shot that you're going to pound back," he continues. "This was always meant to be a little bit more contemplative."

The high alcohol content (100 proof) makes it good for cocktails, too. "There's more there, there," Alevras says, "so it won't suffer from the dilution." He recommends using one of his red grappas in a Manhattan or a Negroni, and a white grappa in a French 75.  

Still skeptical? Alevras compares grappa's rise in popularity to the tequila revolution. "Tequila is something you used to drink in biker bars when you were mad at yourself and wanted to remind yourself that you were mad at yourself. Now every fancy restaurant has more than one kind of fancy tequila."

Grape pomace from grappa making

He isn't the only one making that analogy either. Jeanine Racht of Oregon's Clear Creek Distillery, a fruit brandy company that also makes grappa in pot stills, feels the same way about tequila and mescal alike. She likens the fruity quality of tequila to white-grape grappa and mescal's smoky quality to red-grape grappa.

Time will tell if grappa ever hits it big like tequila or mescal has, but one thing it has going for it is sustainability. Grappa is a waste product after all. "Brandy from garbage!" Racht exclaims. Here on the East Coast, Alevras doesn't just use the pomace from Red Hook Winery's grapes, but he also uses the heads and tails from the first distillation to moisten and ready future pomace, and any barrels ready to be retired go to Brooklyn Brewery, which uses them for experimental brews known as Ghost Bottles.

With food waste in the spotlight and small-scale distilleries on the rise, a spirit made with a waste product is breakthrough material.