After my first experiences in 2015 I had a chance to visit another grappa distillery in the heart of the Friulian foothills – the distillery Bepi Tosolini. Since the first trip in this region my interest increased further towards the production of grappa, which takes place in such a short, intense window each year.
Grappa is such a delicate spirit, it must be made at a certain time of the year to guarantee a fresh, flavoursome product. So when I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa Tosolini (a great grappa-producing family from Friuli in Northern Italy) in London, I was excited to get an invitation to go and visit her family distillery during the harvest. My hope was to see the real nitty-gritty of harvest time and to get my hands dirty (without damaging my nails, of course!!).
September was the perfect time to visit the distillery as I could see the production first hand and really understand the process.
In my previous articles about grappa I explained the limitations and issues Italian grappa producers face due to the lack of regulation of production processes. This has led to many mass-produced grappas of very poor quality – negatively affecting many people’s perception of grappa. Almost anything could be called grappa – and made with little attention to the techniques and proper processes followed by people like the Noninos and Tosolinis, much to their deep frustration.
Finally, in August this year, new regulations were adopted to protect those grappa producers, that strictly follow the law in every detail: from the accurate aging in barrels to the statements on the label to the grappa they export worldwide. From now on, you should safely be able to expect aged grappa, Grappa Barrique, to be on the same level, no matter which distillery it is from. The new guidance states that “distillers may use the name ‘Grappa Barrique‘, provided it is aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 months, exclusively in aging cellars under the customs permanent control, to grant reliability to the consumers.”
However, the truth is that many distilleries have been cutting corners for years and don’t have the right skills or money to continue producing the same selection of grappa that they have done in the past. In a way, this might be a good thing for those who have always worked hard to produce top-quality spirits, such as Bepi Tosolini, and through these new regulations perhaps more people will understand what it takes to produce top-quality grappa.
Each distillery has an appointed officer or officers who monitor how much grappa is being produced (obviously they want the distillery to pay tax on every drop it makes… it’s Italy, after all) by adding electronic meters everywhere. During the ageing process only the officer can access the cellars, not the distiller, not the brand owner, but only the officer. He will come on the day you leave the casks to mature, he will lock the doors and come back again 12 months later. After that, the distiller is free to continue with the next step of the production or to leave the casks to age for longer.
At the distillery
I spent most of the day with Lisa and her assistant Silvia. We started from their own vineyard just outside the distillery. Most of the grapes and vinaccia are delivered to the distillery with tractors from nearby vineyards, and the Tosolinis personally select the grapes and vinaccia themselves. It is important to only distil from fresh vinaccia, therefore they can only use grapes from around the area to guarantee the best quality. The family has over 70 years of reliable relationships with the same suppliers, generation after generation.
Inside the distillery, to my surprise, only a few people were at work. I was expecting everyone running around making sure everything gets done in time. But in real life, production is done in fairly small batches with a great care from the Distillers, and this is the way it’s been done since 1943 when the company was founded by the “Patriarch of the Alembic” Mr Bepi Tosolini. At Tosolini distillery they had only two men doing the distilling of grappa. I was impressed how carefully monitored the whole process is.
Fermentation takes place in stainless-steel tanks, where the vinaccia undergo a short and controlled-temperature fermentation to maintain fresh and moist vinaccia. Red grapes, however, have already undergone alcoholic fermentation during wine making, as the skins are left with the juice during fermentation to give the red colour to the wine. It can therefore be distilled immediately when making grappa.
At Bepi Tosolini they use two types of still: steam batch and bain-marie. They also still use the original custom-made manual alembic steam stills Bepi Tosolini had built many years ago for the production of blended grappa. The bain-marie is mainly used for the production of single variety grappa (i.e. Grappa Moscato, Merlot, Chardonnay…) as this is the ideal for distilling the skins together with the juice of the single grape variety.
You could smell the fresh grapes inside the distillery the same way they smelled and tasted fresh from the vines. It’s something quite magical.
If you would like to learn more about the making of grappa, see here for more photos of the production.
It’s not all about grappa
Bepi Tosolini supplies different products for different markets. Even if their main distillate is grappa, they have other hand-crafted products in their selection. MOST® is almost as popular as grappa, but it is made using the whole grape. Only the ripest and freshest grapes are good enough for grape eau de vie. The ACQUAVITE MOST® was developed and patented in early 1980’s by the Bepi Tosolini family.
Amaro is also popular, especially in Germany, as it is distilled using fresh herbs. All 15 different Mediterranean herbs are carefully selected from the local lagoon. The maceration of the herbs is carried out together with the MOST® eau de vie, to add roundness and softness to this liqueur. The recipe today is based on the original recipe from their grandfather, which dates back to the second world war, and it is deliberately kept as a secret.
This is my mum’s favourite. I always have to bring her some Amaro from Italy. Think of it as an Italian version of Jägermeister, yet more sophisticated as it is not to be drunk with Red Bull but as a digestif.
They also make a selection of liqueurs, such as coffee, strawberry and amaretto. During my visit, I saw how a small team were making these liqueurs in small batches, again carefully monitoring each step of the production. All the ingredients are Italian, nothing artificial is added at any point. Finest quality Arabica coffee beans are from Illy, a very well-known Italian brand, almonds are from Sicily, lemons from the Amalfi Coast, and liquorice is from Calabria.
We finished the distillery visit with a mandatory tasting and a cocktail hour. My favourite cocktail was their take on Espresso Martini, using Expre 28 coffee liqueur.
The pros and cons of family business
The tasting took place next to the distillery in a building the Tosolini family lived in for a long time, the others may have moved on, but the Master Distiller Bruno Tosolini still lives there today. Lisa’s father, Giovanni Tosolini (who looks very much like Robert De Niro, just much taller), only lives nearby and is unlikely to ever really retire. Grappa making is in his blood and it is hard to let it go. This is similar to my experience at Noninos, where I remember Benito Nonino hanging around at their distillery wanting to be involved even if the children were fully capable of running things!
What fantastic passion these families have for their businesses; the love of making grappa gets passed on generation after generation. Although Lisa did stress that it can sometimes be hard to keep the business separate from daily family life. She decided to move a bit further away from the distillery to be able to maintain some sort of balance between family and work.
Her two brothers also work in the family business. Bruno Tosolini is the Master Distiller, and Master Blender, responsible for the whole production process, and Giuseppe Tosolini is responsible for the Domestic market, which indeed is very demanding, full of grappa lovers!
Lisa explained how easily most of their family gatherings tend to turn into work meetings, even on Sundays, the day of rest.
So it was no surprise that when Mr Tosolini found out we were all heading out for lunch, he wanted to join us. Like sherry, grappa is at its best when paired with food. You can use it in cooking or just combine it with different courses. Our head chef, Mr Luca Masarotti from Aquila Nera, had prepared a special tasting menu for us.
Prosciutto with figs served with MOST® Picolit; the rare picolit grape is grown in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. The ham was followed by a selection of cheeses with jam and sauce reduction made with FRAGOLA liqueur and Grappa al Miele infusion. After which I was served a beautiful mini-steak with sauce infused with a new slightly smoked grappa, which is an aged grappa shortly seasoned in barrels, which have been toasted with Kentucky tobacco leaves .
Finally, for dessert we had vanilla gelato with Grappa I Legni Rovere – I have to say that was as delicious as rum and raisin ice cream (yes, I have a thing for boozy desserts…). There’s no meal that doesn’t end with a glass of Amaro! Cin Cin!
There’s still a lot work to be done for Italian grappa..
For a long time in Italy, restaurant owners have liked to offer their customers a free drink at the end of each meal. Over time, this has become almost customary, and the restaurant feels it is still expected by their customers and it is hard to kick this old habit. Therefore, instead of offering their customers a drink of a great-quality grappa, they give you cheap stuff that leaves, literally, a bad taste after a wonderful meal. Funnily enough, the customer would be willing to pay a few euros for a great ending to the meal instead of having some throat burner for free…
You are safer choosing the homemade limoncello or Sambuca over grappa, especially if you are dining in a reasonably touristy area. You can always ask to know more about their grappas to see if you can choose between the brands.
Maybe this new ruling on the ageing of grappa will help to change the conception of grappa outside Italy, and hopefully over time, more regulations will follow when it comes to unaged grappa. Meanwhile, keep exploring and trying different varieties. As Silvia recommended, if you are new to grappa, start with MOST® – you can consider it “the one for the ladies”, as this gentle, soft eau de vie, a perfect blend of aromatic grapes (Fragolino, Moscato, Merlot, Friulano), is smooth enough to meet any woman’s palate making it an easy one to help your taste buds get used to the idea of grape spirit.
Have you tried the real grappa? What did you think of it? I would love to hear about your grappa-related drink stories. Just leave a comment below.