Still a popular way for Northern Italian laborers to keep from freezing while working outdoors in winter, grappa brewing actually dates back to the Middle Ages. The idea behind this strong beverage requires adding skins, stems, seeds and other fruit byproducts in the pursuit of a heady liqueur. It sidesteps the niceties of fine wine production and employs every part of the fruit so nothing goes to waste. Once considered akin to moonshine, grappa has morphed from primitive brew to a beverage that's often compared to French cognacs and brandies or Portuguese Sherries. Make your own to see if reviewers are on the mark.
Purchase the ripest fruit you can find, then wash it and cut it up. Put it together with stems, seeds and skin into a large vat or pot so it can begin the fermentation process. Seal the container. Some grappa makers put their fruit mix into glass containers and accelerate the process by putting it into the sun to speed up the fermentation. As the fruit breaks down, bubbling will occur. You can stop the fermentation process after a week.
Use a fruit press, blender, food processor or other type of tool to pulverize the fermented fruit into what grappa-makers call pomace. The objective here is to quickly squeeze the oxygen out of the mixture so you don't lose precious aromas while taking the mix down to a fruity pulp.
Put the squeezed pomace into your still and heat it up until you see steam being emitted. Monitor the temperature of the still to make certain none of the material burns and ruins the flavor of the grappa. It won't be long before you see the grappa start to move through the still into the final storage chamber.
Eliminate the first grappa that reaches the storage chamber. Like most products of the distillation process, the first result tastes bad because it contains methane, so you'll want to dump the initial output. Monitor the remainder of the grappa as it moves through the still and cooks. When you notice the color is getting lighter, the brew has been reduced to watery remains and you're reaching the end of the process. Discard the tail end of the grappa so it doesn't dilute the finished product.
Age the grappa you've distilled in a stainless steel barrel or large pot unless you happen to have oak barrels, in which case your finished brew will be wonderfully tasty. Seal the vessel and place it in a dark, cool spot. Most vintners agree that six months is an adequate curing time period, though some suggest you can probably sample your grappa at three months to see if it's ready to consume.
Bottle your grappa once you're satisfied with the taste. Some vintners recommend straining the liqueur through a paper filter before bottling, but this isn't required. Divide your grappa among glass bottles, seal with corks and amaze your guests.
Choose any type of produce to brew your grappa. Stick with tradition and use grapes or select other seasonal picks. Check with produce managers of local fruit markets to get their recommendations. Ask if you can get price reductions if you purchase the fruit by the case rather than just by the pound. Like all experiments in distilling, you may have to prepare grappa several times and with a variety of fruit bases to get the process down pat and an end result that pleases your taste buds. In the interim, have fun sampling your brew along the way.
To produce your own 80- to 90-proof grappa, you must be at least 21 and adhere to quantity restrictions set by local and state governments for consumers who make their own beer, wine and liquor at home. Make more than your legal limit and you could get into trouble with authorities.
Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.