Visiting a Grappa Legend & a Hidden Absinthe Bar
Article and photos by Virginia Miller
This October I spent a magical day in the birthplace of grappa, enchanting Bassano del Grappa, a Northern Italian town (in the Veneto region) on the river Brenta at the base of the Italian Alps. Grappa, a grape-based brandy, is integral to Italian culture and can be found in many a remote restaurant and bar, distilled locally by families who may have been distilling it for decades. Some versions are rough and bracing, others elegant and delicate.
Since 1779, one of the great families of grappa and Italian liqueurs, Nardini, has been crafting a wide range of spirits in a distillery on the outskirts of town, while their historic tasting room sits right on the corner of Bassano del Grappa’s historic bridge with scenic views of the river Brenta and the Italian Alps.
Funny enough, Antonio Guarda Nardini, one of the Nardini brothers and Managing Director of the company, was away when I was in Bassano, but we met up weeks later in San Francisco to talk (and taste) Nardini. He and the family continue to work tirelessly to export more Nardini products to the US and other countries.
Currently, it’s the release of Nardini Bitter (24% ABV), a rosy-red, Campari-esque aperitivo that is more bitter but also sweeter than Campari, heavy on fresh orange notes, laced with bitter orange, sweet orange, Chinese rhubarb root, gentian, vanilla, even absinthe. The bitter lingers blessedly on the finish with hints of pepper. As one of the legendary spirits in the portfolio, it’s a treat to finally see it hit the US. Their Fernet-style product is awaiting US approval, while their 80 proof grappas (regular, a blend aged a minimum of three years – and riserva, a blend aged a minimum of five years) are also slated to hit the US in 2014.
Antonio came to US in December as part of promotional tour with FederalVini to promote grape-based products (wine, spirits, vinegar) exported from Italy. With his affable sense of humor, he says he’s, “… fed up with grappa being perceived as the leftovers.” I run into it often enough myself: the perception of grappa being rough-and-tumble, harsh, as it is made from grape pomace (skins, stems, seeds, pulp). I love earthy, funky, heavy-hitting grappas, having drunk some pretty rustic ones in the hills north of Lucca (in Tuscany) and other parts of Italy. But there’s a wide array of elegant grappa, Nardini included with the famed Poli just up the street, that is complex and fascinating as a category – recently the category of grappa officially became defined as only produced and bottled in Italy.
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Gianluca researches classic American cocktail recipes and the history of all things cocktail, clearly influencing his refined drinks in the intimate bar with upstairs lounge and classic absinthe service. I sampled a range of cocktails on my visit.
One cocktail created by Andrea, Red Cross, is named in honor of Hemmingway, who served as an ambulance driver during WWI in Bassano del Grappa (a cocktail presented at 2013 Vin Italy, one of the largest wine events in the world). Red Cross is nearly equal parts of Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva Grappa, fresh lemon, and a house red pepper syrup (pepperoncino rosso), complex yet refreshing topped with soda.
Their Nardini Manhattan wins for presentation. Mixing Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva Grappa, red vermouth and Angostura bitters, they pour the cocktail into an empty mini bottle of Nardini’s riserva, cover their face with masks and spray the bottle with liquid nitrogen for a swift, frosty freeze. It’s dramatic… and well-mixed.
On the gin side, they craft a variation on a Bronx cocktail from Hugo R. Ensslin’s self-published 1917 book Recipes for Mixed Drinks. They muddle orange and bitter peel in the gin with pineapple and Dolin dry vermouth, resulting in a dry, bright imbibement.
Named in honor of a battle fought on Mount Grappa in June 1918 where the Italian alpine and infantry soldiers defeated the Austro-Hungarian troops trying to invade Bassano, Blood’s Solstice shows off unaged Aquavite White Grappa, vivacious mixed with Fever Tree Ginger Beer, Nardini Bitter, honey, Luxardo Sangue Morlacco (a vibrant cherry liqueur from nearby Luxardo) and lime, garnished with a skewer of blueberries.
It’s rare to find craft cocktail bars in Italy in general (although that is changing), much less in a small town. Here is a bar that would stand out in a major city… and certainly does in this enchanting city. As the birthplace of grappa, the bar showcases it accordingly – alongside absinthe, whisk(e)y and other global spirits.
My favorite way to drink grappa is neat. As Antonio told me, “Grappa is an after dinner drink that should rinse your palate.” It cleanses, invigorates and delights simultaneously.