Grappa is misunderstood. The Italian “firewater,” brought overseas by Italian immigrants after World War II, historically has a bad reputation among U.S. drinkers who deem it too bitter and abrasive to be enjoyable. But some small-batch distillers, like Blake Ragghianti of Kingfly Spirits, are working to change that.
Technically, grappa is a pomace (grape skin) brandy. Similar to root-to-stem cooking, grappa makes use of leftover alcohol from winemaking, distilling already-fermented grape skins into a strong spirit. Ragghianti calls it a “super version” of wine.
“It’s like 1,000 grape skins in one glass,” says Ragghianti. Two tons of grape skins add up to about eight gallons of grappa.
Ragghianti sources his grape skins from Engine House 25, a winery two blocks down from Kingfly’s Strip District location. This proximity is important. Bad skins make for bad grappa, and pomace, like wine, will turn vinegary if exposed to oxygen for too long. Fresh grape skins oxidize within hours. To make a good spirit, Ragghianti has to start the distilling process immediately after the wine is pressed (even if it’s 2 a.m.).
Grappa is distilled with either water or steam. Kingfly uses water in still resembling a giant KitchenAid mixer. The giant paddle and water saves the pomace from burning while capturing the alcohol. After two rounds of distillation (the first to separate skins from alcohol, the second to refine), the grappa rests in glass containers for three months to a year to restore flavor. Kingfly's first batch will be released in about three weeks, according to Ragghianti.
“When you distill, it’s a molecular apocalypse. [The spirit] comes out in a total chaotic state. It takes a year to rebuild,” says Ragghianti.
Kingfly is in the process of collaborating with, fittingly, the Lawrenceville grappa bar Grapperia for a new batch. A mix of South American, South African, and Californian grapes are currently being distilled, and should be released sometime next year.
“The reality of it is that grappa is one of the finest, most complex, and hardest to distill spirits in the world," says Ragghianti. "If you can do a truly good grappa, then you’ve really honed your skills. I don’t know if we’re there, but I’m thrilled with what we’re producing. ”