Luckily, I stumbled across Rocky and the boys down in Lazio. It turns out that whilst maintaining a wholesome, culinary-orientated tour company 'Culture Discovery Vacations', they also run a slick little moonshine operation on the side. Being an amateur moonshiner myself, I jumped at the invitation to pay a visit to their lab. And there, in the dark of a wine cellar, we cooked up some rocket fuel. I also suggested that hashtagging their endeavours on Twitter probably isn’t the best idea out there.
Grappa’s a rabid-strong spirit. It’s beautiful but it kicks like a horse. It’s traditionally drunk as a digestivo - something to slink down after a big meal. I’ve pulled up many an Italian on how exactly necking 60-proof alcohol helps you digest your food, but they all refuse to budge. Of course it does. You can also throw it in your espressoto make a café corretto. Again, how anyone could feel “correct” after a weapons-grade mix like that is beyond me.
Its production is heavily bound-up by EU regulation. First, it must be made from pomace - the piths, pulps and skins of grapes left over from a wine pressing. Second, it must be produced in Italy or Switzerland. Third, fermentation must occur on the pomace itself with no added water. And lastly, all of the solids must be piled into the pot for distilling without filtering anything out. But when skirting the law to begin with, any rules seemed foolish to follow. So here’s how we went about it:
1: This is their setup. It’s a traditional alembic pot still, around 25-litres. They’re made from copper due to the antibacterial properties the metal supposedly contains. It also blocks yeast and sulphur from entering the final product, making the end product taste a little sweater than it would using a stainless steel model. And don’t let the photo fool you. It’s huge.
2: Instead of using pomace, these crazy bastards have been flooding the thing with local wine. Although they can’t technically call it grappa (not that it matters after eight shots of the stuff) they swear it tastes smoother. This method, also gives them a higher volume of the stuff much faster than using pomace. Now I’m no economist, but you can’t really argue with that.
3: To begin, we sloshed four large jugs of local wine into the still’s main pot. Around 18 litres in total. At the end of the run, this gave us just over 3 and a half litres of grappa. The general rule of thumb is that the amount of fermented liquid you pour into the beast yields you back around one fifth of pure, unadulterated liver failure.
4: Next comes heat. Long and low works best. It takes roughly an hour to get it up to speed. Heating it too quickly means you run the risk of contaminating your moonshine with impurities. Many of these (like methanol) boil at lower temperatures than drinkable alcohol. A fast boil will make everything evaporate at the same time, re-condensing into a liquid that’s guaranteed to make a mess of your morning.
5: When the liquid heats to around 90’C, the alcohol beings to evaporate. It then travels along the copper piping as vapour. When it reaches the smaller pot, a cooling mechanism - in this case, a link to a cold-water tap, reduces the temperature. This forces the pure alcohol to condense back down into a liquid, and drip steadily from the still’s outlet pipe.
6: Now: the first trickle that comes out is not moonshine, but methanol. Methanol’s the bad stuff. The stuff that makes you go blind or end up in the emergency room after trepanning your own skull. It’s got to be ditched. Again, the rough rule for distillers is to discard the first 200ml of distillate for every 20 litres made, making it safe for consumption.
It’s easy to smell the difference. Methanol has a very sickly sweet, chemically smell: like bananas or gay clubs. Ethanol alcohol smells a lot more like standard alcohol and doesn’t make your nostrils bleed when take a sniff.
7: Make sure you collect the first 200ml in a separate container so as not to contaminate your final product. For those worried, I can report that after around forty shots, I mysteriously awoke with no hangover. Although, I had no recollection of where I was, or how I got there.
8: Now for the disclaimer. Both methanol and ethanol are highly flammable. And remember, the still’s pressurised too. So don’t smoke or use open flames anywhere near the process. This is how idiots blow their houses up. And don’t, under any circumstances do so something as stupid as pour some on the ground and set fire to it.
9: See, I’m really not joking. Don’t do this. Ever.
10: After you’ve dumped the methanol, the still will continue to heat for around fifteen minutes longer. And eventually your moonshine will come trickling out: pure, raw, ketamine-strong and ready to drink.
Stop collecting it when you reach around one fifth of the initial amount you poured in to begin with. This will stop hydrosols getting into your booze. They’re not dangerous like methanol, but they can make it taste pretty rough. The last thing you want is the heartbreak undrinkable booze. Because you’ll probably neck it anyway, out of sheer frustration.
12: And this is it. This is your hellwater. You can go Castaway and drink it straight from the jug. Ageing it in oak barrels also greatly improves the quality and flavour…especially in old port barrels. But we had no time for such fancies. I also watched them pervert the mix with all sorts of flavours, as well as show off some firm favourites from the lab: orange and mint, espresso beans, hazelnut, chilli pepper, plum, cherry…the whole freaky kabala.
13: Now, under the auspices of serious research, sit down with a notebook and run through the lot. Every single flavour. Every colour, every single vintage. Check for common threads, flavour trinities, bodies, noses, literary comparisons, weather patterns, ex girlfriends, childhood memories. Unfortunately, half way through, I dropped that black notebook somewhere down in the cellar. After crawling in the dark for some time, it has still not been recovered.
14: Finally, a proper tasting needs external comparisons: control groups. For this, continued drinking is essential. Head to a local bar that serves grappa. Order a huge selection of grappas and proceed to drink until they throw you out.
Tracking down backyard distillers down can be difficult, but if you do, you’ll find that they’re willing to share their craft with anyone who has enthusiasm for the subject beyond wanting to get smashed up. They didn’t really go for my LSD grappa idea, but apparently, the bacon variety is now the talk of the town. As is the idiot who thought he could outdrink a couple of moonshiners. The details of the evening, I’m assured, are best left unknown to me.