Bar Italia Keeps an Italian Grappa Tradition Alive

Until the 1970s, when Italy’s Nonino family embarked on a mission to revive and refine grappa, this high-alcohol brandy had for centuries remained a European peasant’s drink. Probably first distilled between the 12th and 15th centuries in Italy, grappa was a cheap, somewhat toxic concoction distilled from the leftovers of wine production – the pomace, a medley of remnant fresh fruit skins and stems.

The Nonino family reinvented grappa by deciding to use single varietals to make a batch instead of grouping a myriad of leftovers from numerous wine distillations. The grappa was then packaged in fine, hand-blown glass bottles of about one or two liters and tagged with hand-written information about the origins of the grappa and the number of bottles produced. Ever since, grappa has earned a growing following of connoisseurs.

However, it has long been a tradition in Italy to mute the strong, alcohol-forward grappa with an infusion of herbs and seasonings. At Bar Italia Ristorante and Caffè, co-owner Mengesha Yohannes makes this true Italian tradition accessible. About a quarter of the 75 different bottles of grappa on display above the bar are infusions he has created: espresso, lemon-saffron, lavender, Jamaican hibiscus and vanilla, among others.

“I try to avoid cliché combinations,” said Yohannes, who has been infusing grappa with various flavors for more than 15 years. “It’s like blending a perfume, you want complements and contrasts.”

But the additional flavors are more than a chemistry experiment in flavoring.

“It smoothes out some of the roughness, and it’s an easier entry into grappa,” said Yohannes. “It is an Italian tradition that makes grappa more accessible, because price-wise it gives you something to try.”

Cheap bottles of grappa start at about $30, but some cost as much as $200. At Bar Italia, grappa can run anywhere from $6 to $20 for a 1-ounce serving in a shot glass.

Yohannes admitted that keeping grappa available at Bar Italia is by no means a profit-making venture. Instead, he has fun as he leads customers from one interesting mix to the next, telling them a little history about each blend.

In fact, the most notorious infused grappa at Bar Italia is 15 years old and made from seahorses purchased in New York’s Chinatown. “I was walking in Chinatown and there was this old man with a table of herbs for sale,” Yohannes said. “He had a long white beard down to his bellybutton and everything but two things were in Chinese. One was for ginseng and said, ‘Good for blood.’ The other was for the seahorses, which was in Chinese, but in English it said, ‘Helps good for men.’” Amused, Yohannes bought a few and 15 years later tells the tale to interested customers. “It’s a little briny,” he said.

Bar Italia’s selection of grappa is wide, offering a range of Nonino grappas as well as a selection of Castello Banfi grappas and some non-Italian “pomace brandy,” in particular a 100-proof bottle from Macedonia that Yohannes said is close to the traditional peasant profile.

Sampling grappa can be an intense experience due to its potency, and Yohannes makes tasting it an adventure. “It becomes part of their evening,” said Yohannes about customers who enjoy the discovery of grappa. “Once they have it and know they like it, they work it in.”

However, grappa retains some of its peasant roots. A discerning palette is not necessary; one would be hard-pressed to name the varietal from which any particular batch is made. “When you have an infusion, it does tend to change over time,” said Yohannes. “It’s hard for anyone, even a grappa fan like me, to describe a grappa accurately.”