This story was originally published on MUNCHIES UK in February 2015.
If you’ve ever holidayed in Italy, you’ll probably have had a run-in with grappa.
Distilled from leftover grape dregs, the highly alcoholic brandy began life in the 12th century, drunk by peasants in Europe’s winemaking regions. Today, grappa is more of a tourist vice, known for producing the kind of hangovers that have you wondering if you did ten rounds with Mike Tyson last night.
But a man by the name of Cosmo Caddy may know something we don’t about the much-maligned spirit.
“There’s a lot of bad grappa in the world because they make so much of it in Italy,” says Cosmo Caddy, a Devon winemaker determined to transform grappa’s unsavoury morning-after-the-night-before image. “The stuff they plonk down and say, ‘Have for free’ is never going to be quality, yet the Brits—especially the Brits—see a free bottle of alcohol and go for it. And then they blame the grappa for their headache in the morning.”
Caddy is so passionate about good grappa that he’s making his own, which he calls “Dappa”—short for “Devon grappa.”
Yes, that’s right, not Italy: Devon. The southwest of England might not be the liquor’s traditional home but alcohol production is in Caddy’s blood.
“My grandfather planted a vineyard in Devon the year I was born, 1982, so I’ve been around winemaking most of my life,” he explains. “I was picking grapes aged four and helped to sell it in my summer holidays. I moved back to Devon about four years ago when the idea of making grappa came up.”
While grappa is usually associated with hard liquor like vodka and gin, it’s actually a byproduct of wine production.
“In the winemaking process, if you have a red grape and squeeze it, the juice that comes out will almost always be clear,” explains Caddy. “The colour that goes into red wine comes from the skins. Winemakers break the skins, create a skin-and-juice mush which they leave to ferment for ten to 20 days to get the colour, and then press it out.”
“I semi-jokingly say that grappa is an eco-friendly drink and that you can save the planet by drinking it. I take the waste skins and distill the alcohol out of them to make a 94 percent alcohol.”
The skins are then usually thrown out, despite there being plenty of alcohol being left. This is where the thrifty grappa-maker comes in.
“It’s upcycling,” says Caddy. “I semi-jokingly say it’s an eco-friendly drink and that you can save the planet by drinking grappa. I take the waste skins and distill the alcohol out of them to make a 94 percent alcohol. We water it down with spring water to about 50 percent and that is the beginning of grappa.”
Given the number of vineyards in Italy, it makes sense for the country to produce grappa—but Devon?
“I was pretty confident I could get the raw materials from my grandfather’s vineyard,” says Caddy. “I’d found a place in Devon where it would be acceptable to put in a grappa distillery, and then went over to Italy on ‘research trips’ to learn how it’s made. Whether I’d be able to find enough red grape skins was one of those things I realised after I placed the order for the still. It dawned on me that I’m choosing to make something that uses only 12 percent of all the grapes grown in the UK.”
English vineyards tend to concentrate on the Champagne grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which grow well in the chalky soils of the south.
So Caddy did some sums: four tonnes of grapes makes around 4000 litres of wine, but the skins will only make up around a tonne of that. Once the distillation process is complete, the amount of grappa produced is about 1 percent in relation to the amount of wine the same grapes have made.
In other words: not very much.
“I collect grape skins from almost all of the wineries in the UK that make red in any significant volume,” explains Caddy. “Of course, there are lots of people who grow red grapes but make them into a rosé or a sparkling—both of which are useless to me, since they’re not fermenting the skins.”
Despite the challenge of making a spirit in a country lacking crucial ingredients, populated by people who associate it with hangover horror stories, Caddy’s grappa has flourished. At the recent San Francisco World Spirit Awards, Dappa was named as the 13th best grappa in the world.
“I know it sounds ridiculous to claim 13th place but they make around nine million bottles of grappa every year in Italy, and there were hundreds of grappas entered,” he says. “It’s amazing to know that we’re up there with the best.”
Some of this is down to the expertise of Caddy’s mentor Marco, who he met on his travels around Italy. Marco is the ninth generation of his family to make grappa.
“He told me how to make a quality spirit,” says Caddy. “He thought it was daft—an English guy trying to make an Italian drink—but he was very supportive at the same time. His primary rule is that you have to be holding a glass of Prosecco in one hand while you’re distilling.”
Once the alcohol has been distilled—Prosecco glass in hand—it’s left to mature.
“The time allows it to settle down, relax, and breath—and it removes some of the harshness,” explains Caddy. “What we make tastes different to the Italian stuff because we’re using different grape varieties. In England, it’s mainly Pinot Noir and Blondo. In Italy, it’s grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. So Dappa is smoother and more refined than the stuff you’ve had on ski trips.”
We can all happily join in a Dappa toast to that.