On September 27th, seven bartenders and mixologists from across the United States will embark on a 10-day trip to Italy to tour many of the country’s most famous regions, visiting wineries, distilleries and a glass-making company along the way. The seven are all winners of the world’s first grappa-centric bartending competition, The Gra’it Challenge, a multi-round, five-city contest that called for unique grappa-based cocktail recipes from its participants. The competition kicked off last November; the grappa that inspired it, Gra’it (pronounced “great”), launched mere months before that, in early 2016. The fledgling brand’s inception, however, stretches several years back.
In 2013, Italian consultant Luca Fabris was working at international consulting firm Bain & Company, where he had a finger on the pulse of the beverage alcohol industry—his clients included such drinks giants as Bacardi and Brown-Forman. While at Bain, he discovered, explored and analyzed the American cocktail culture. “Everything in the U.S. is driven by bartenders and cocktails,” says Fabris. “That’s quite different from the way Europeans drink spirits, which is predominantly neat.”
Fabris also found that Italy’s representation on the American back bar was lacking. “I asked myself, ‘How come the Russians made it with vodka, the English with gin, the Caribbean with rum and Mexico with Tequila?’” says Fabris. “Meanwhile, grappa is pretty much nowhere outside Italy.” He set out to explore grappa in the United States, with little success—bartenders didn’t use it, consumers didn’t know about it, and retailers often didn’t stock it. From there, he had one mission: Create good grappa and bring it to the U.S.
Fabris spent the latter part of 2013 traveling between Italy and the U.S. to visit various distilleries, ultimately aligning with the Bonollo Distillery, based in the Italian province of Padova, in 2014. “I was amazed by Bonollo’s technology and the way they distilled grappa, which was very different from the old artisan way of making grappa,” says Fabris. “I said, ‘Let’s try to develop something palatable to U.S. consumers, and more importantly, something suitable for mixing, to go into cocktails.’” And thus, Gra’it was born.
After two and a half years of experimentation, Fabris and Bonollo produced the permanent iteration of Gra’it: A delicate blend of seven different grappas, all separately distilled from seven types of pomace taken from seven Italian grape varieties—glera, amarone, Moscato d’Asti, Barolo, brunello, aglianico, and Nero d’Avola. In contrast to traditional grappa production, in which a combination of stem, seeds and skins are distilled, Gra’it first takes the stems and seeds out, distilling only the highly aromatic skins. The blended juice is then aged 12 months in Slavonian oak casks prior to bottling.
A central component of Gra’it’s identity lies in “alchemixology,” a term Fabris coined in the brand’s early days. “First, there’s the alchemical process of producing Gra’it,” explains Fabris. “It goes through fermentation, then distillation followed by sublimation; a kind of filtering, elevation and refinement. Then there’s the alchemy of Italian life, the way Italians enjoy life and manage to combine simple things, producing the ‘dolce vita Italiana.’” On every Gra’it bottle and across all branding, this ethos is reflected by way of a double-ended key and a rose, two images that harken back to alchemy.
The brand has built a specialized sales team of six people that, according to Fabris, “sleeps, drinks and eats grappa on a daily basis,” and is 80-percent focused on the on-premise, namely cocktail bars and high-end venues like The Nomad in New York City and Los Angeles–based The Ponte. Fabris is hesitant to introduce the brand to too many off-premise accounts, citing a fear of seeing the bottle linger endlessly on a shelf, though he stresses it can be used as a quality sipping grappa outside of the mixology world. “We say Gra’it is for mixing because it’s incredibly versatile,” he explains. “The way we blend it creates a very well-rounded flavor, which is never aggressive or overwhelming in a cocktail. But you can absolutely drink Gra’it straight, or over ice.” Gra’it is available in select retailers for $40 a 750-ml.
For now, Gra’it’s production is extremely small—Fabris projects the brand will hit between 2,500 and 3,000 cases by year-end. “Currently, we’re only present in seven U.S. states: Miami, New York, Texas, California, Illinois, Louisiana and Nevada,” says Fabris. The brand’s strongest market is Florida, where its headquarters are located, but New York and California are also important. As for future growth, Fabris is in no rush, saying, “Our objective is to evolve Gra’it to a much larger scale, but we’re going step by step.”