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Minnesota's blossoming wine industry begets a smooth new grappa

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It’s known as Italian moonshine.

The uninitiated liken it to nail polish remover or lighter fluid. The initiated grimace traumatically when its name appears on the aperitif menu.

More than mezcal or cynar or sambuca, grappa is the most polarizing liquor in the American drinking tradition. Made by distilling the leftover pulp and skins of wine grapes (called pomace), grappa is an intense, clear brandy that is typically served as a digestivo in Italian culture. Several other winemaking countries -- including Argentina, Greece, Spain, and France -- distill pomace brandies under their own local sobriquets, but the original Italian name “grappa,” in its onomatopoetic ugliness, has endured in the American vernacular.

Vinting has grown in prominence in Minnesota since U of M grape expert Peter Hemstad developed the Frontenac grape variety in 1996. Hemstad has since introduced several other cold-weather grapes for Midwestern growing, and opened his own winery, St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater, to showcase his local-industry-inventing hybrids.

Hemstad is not a distiller, and St. Croix’s pomace was commonly treated as waste, and composted. But St. Croix had recently collaborated with Roseville’s Bent Brewstillery on a 100 percent Minnesota sour beer called Campo. That was when Bent owner and head distiller Bartley Blume (seen below) got the idea to take the grape refuse and throw it into his stills.

“We had an opportunity to do something that is rarely done,” Blume says, clarifying that it was St. Croix Vineyard’s Martin Polognioli who, after a few glasses of wine, suggested making grappa. “Martin and the owners of St. Croix, they were excited about it, so they saved us a bunch of skins. We did an experimental batch two years ago. They thought it was great, so I was like, ‘OK, let’s up the production of it.’”

Bent Brewstillery's St. Croix Grappa was released on Saturday at the Roseville brewstillery. Only 300 bottles were produced this year, most of which were purchased on premise this past weekend.

The idea of European moonshine wasn’t foreign to Blume. Bent Brewstillery already is noted for its Irish-style Bent Anchor poitín, which is distilled from Anchor Fish & Chips’s discarded potato peelings. It’s a certifiably odd hooch to build your distilling profile around, but then, Bent Brewstillery has always been a bit iconoclastic.

At 92 proof (46 percent ABV), St. Croix Grappa is overproof for grappa, which traditionally falls at about 80 proof. But that’s Bent’s style. They’re the first brewery/distillery in Minnesota’s history, and they’re continually pushing beyond what North Star Staters see on the market. The grappa release has been yet another success. Not only does it prove that Minnesotans have a taste for the fiery after-dinner drink, but it affirms Blume's theory that his strange liquor interpretations can find an audience here.

“This is entertainment,” Blume says. “People who came here and tried it, but have never had it before have said, ‘Wow, this is good, where’s this been all my life?’”

St. Croix Grappa is not the first Minnesota-made grappa. J. Carver Distillery in Waconia makes four varieties of grappa, including one distilled from Marquette pomace from Parley Lake Winery, Schram Vineyard, and Sovereign Estate Winery.

Though J. Carver lays claim to “truly the first all-Minnesota grappa,” Bent goes even further in its devotion to its home state.

Distilled from a mixture of Frontenac gris, Marquette, and La Crescent grapes, St. Croix Grappa represents a huge swath of Minnesota’s recently created grape varieties. The yeast used to ferment the pomace is also from local cultures, and the liquor is distilled in charred Marquette barrels. A brief 10-month aging process was used to maintain the sweet and fragrant character of the grapes, which comes through in the liquor's aroma and aftertaste.

“We decided to make one that was 100 percent Minnesotan, that was the big motivating part of this,” Blume says. “If someone already does it, why bother? But if you can do it better, then do it better.”

Of course, the harshness of the grappa is not fully quelled. That’d be too far a departure for even Blume. Grappa has to hurt a little -- that’s what helps your stomach biota break down your dinner, right? -- and so this one does. But it’s a satisfying, tempered burn. Would it be Minnesotan if it didn’t moderate its intensity?

While the idea of Minnesota grappa is galvanizing, there is an argument that it shouldn’t exist. Though “grappa” doesn’t refer to a specific region of origin in the same way cognac, champagne, or tequila does, Italy's National Grappa Institute has insisted that anything distilled outside of Italy, San Marino, or Switzerland cannot rightly be called grappa. The term “grappa” is not geographically limited (otherwise Bent and J. Carver wouldn’t legally be allowed to print it on their labels), but purists would argue Minnesota distillers should call their product pomace brandy, or whatever else they want, but not grappa.

As a final nose-thumb to the booze tightasses, Blume celebrated St. Croix Grappa’s release with a trio of grappa cocktails that deconstruct the margarita (grappa, lime juice, San Pellegrino Limonata, lime), costa del sol (grappa, ginger ale, lime), and old fashioned (seen above, made from grappa, cherry, orange slice, simple syrup, soda water, and orange bitters) with delicious abandon.

But Bent’s greatest rebellion is that next year’s batch is already in progress. 2017’s debut run may be nearly sold out, but 2018’s iteration is following on the fall’s grape harvest. So long as Minnesotans keep buying it, Blume confirms that St. Croix Grappa will be released every fall in increasingly larger batches.