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Asia Europe Latin America Travel Drugs Liquor

Singani or Grappa?

Grappa is the first beverage distilled from wine grapes or other fruit or must or pomace that I consume. It’s my twelfth birthday, and I am in Montecatini Terme, Italy, at a resort with my parents who are traveling on business. I’m at a long table for dinner, gorging on breadsticks and pasta and chocolate cake, and I’m served a glass of the house grappa along with the local tradition of pulling on my earlobes in succession once per year.

Uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove, dieci, undici, dodici, some red earlobes and my first Italian holiday.

So much more recently I was drinking grappa on a rooftop in Rome for another Italian holiday, New Years, kissing my new Roman friends on the cheeks, watching the fireworks take us over the edge. This all after refusing all the traditional grain and meat filled dishes, and before heading on to hot Sicilian and Maltese exploits.

Fireworks over Rome at night

Auguri!

The distillate of fruit is one of the things that ties the world together. I don’t drink wine, because it makes me feel bad, but I do drink distilled liquor, intermittently. In any wine region of the world there is invariably someone who has thought to make liquor out of the waste, or excess, if not as a standalone industry using grapes or other fruit. 

Grocer store shelf full of Singani

In Bolivia, it is called Singani. On my second trip to Bolivia, my host invites a friend and their English tutor over so that we can all practice conversation together. I have purchased a nice bottle of Singani, which they decline to share as it is a work night.

“Only a couple brands of Singani are imported into the US” I explain. “For me it is rare and very special.”

“You drink Singani?” asks my host’s friend, eyes wide.

“Yes, when I am in Bolivia.” I smile. I tell the story about my last visit to Bolivia, and La Paz, where during my meal at Gustu I drank aged Singani that can’t really be called that due to the strict denomination of origin. Unlike with Mezcal, where I think that aging does nothing to improve it, with Singani I love the aging. “I also love the sweetness and specific taste of the muscat grape, it’s my favorite style of grape liquor.”

My host is fascinated, but my host’s friend stares at me in disbelief.

“Women can’t drink Singani!” he exclaims. “It ruins your seed.” he says, putting his hands on his belly to emphasize his point.

“Yeah. You believe some weird stuff about women in Bolivia.” I say. “Like La Viudita.” I point out.

La Viudita is a terrifying Latin American myth only if you are a macho man. The fable tells of a man drunk, on his way home from a bar, seduced by a very scary widow. It varies from country to country in the horrific specificities, but it usually involves finding out that, lo and behold,  the man’s seductress is actually, wait for it…. UGLY! The horror. Best not be drinking.

He accepts my point and our conversation merrily changes to superstitions and beliefs across culture. More Singani for me.

Sign saying "Blessed Pisco, sweet torment. What are you doing out there? Come on in here!"

In Peru and Chile, the same thing is called Pisco. They serve Pisco Sours at many bars in the US and Europe. And in Santiago, I visit the Chipe Libre – Républica Independiente del Pisco. It’s a bar that pretends to be an imaginary state between Peru and Chile, ending the age-old debate about who owns that origin and better firewater by selling Pisco and Pisco flights (the latter of which fills a few of my nights in Santiago) originating from both countries, with beautiful amounts of detail provided about the booze.

Republic of Pisco map

Pisco with macerated coca leaves sounds more exciting than it is.

Pisco with macerated coca leaves

If you’re into cocaethylene, you’ll likely be disappointed, but as a sacrament, I loved it.

In France it’s Eau de Vie, which coincidentally shares the same etymology as “whisky” (Uisce beatha), aqua vitae, and also sort of “alcohol”. If you take liberaties with the translation of “Al-Kuhl”, it translates to Water of Life. I love sitting at a French cafe and drinking Eau de Vie, but find few that carry it as it’s more of a dinner thing.

A shelf full of Raki

In Greece and Turkey we get drunk on a bit of anise for Ouzo and Raki respectively, but even internally these vary. In Istanbul I find the Turkish tradition of adding water until it forms a milky cloud, and the foods that accompany. They please me in theory. In practice I don’t like it, and if I drink it, I prefer it straight. 

The first time I try Raki it is straight up on an airplane, and I horrify the Turkish Airlines staff with that choice. They’re convinced I don’t know what I’m getting into. I am asking for something so far off their norm, they can’t imagine someone drinking straight liquor, whereas I’m like “ooooh new country new distillate!” and used to shooing people off who don’t think I want my hard stuff neat.

Photo of a bottle of Arak from Ramallah, Palestine

In Israel and Palestine and Beirut it is Arak, to me indistinguishable from Turkish Raki, down to the tendency to serve it clouded with water.

And Raki changes as one goes North from Turkey into the same liquor, but add an “A” at the end for Rakia. First before that, as you travel Northwards the booze changes its contents from anise, to a choice between anise and fruit, to many choices of fruit for Rakia made all through the Balkans and Baltics.

Bottle of Medeni

I drink it with my metallurgist host in Slovenia. Delicious homemade Rakia of so many flavors. He and his wife also serve me Medeni, the same thing only made with honey.

Bottle of homemade Croatian Rakia

And then one homemade flavor, apple, shared with me by my Croatian hosts. While we drink and smoke Albanian weed they show me videos of a Rakijada – a festival held in a small Serbian village. Sometimes there are other, smaller versions surrounding a wedding or other family event. The purpose of this festival is simple: to drink as much Rakia as one possibly can. 

I’m baffled at the intensity and ridiculousness of the ritual. Old men passing out at the table, coming to, only to drink another sip.

Of course my host in Vienna has to compete with fine Scnapps. He is polyamorous and a Couchsurfer and we deduce while sipping that these shared variables mean we have five friends in common across three continents.

In Russia it’s my friend’s Jewish babushka’s homemade fruit brandy. She so excited both that Dima brought home a Jewish girl, and to share my mother’s maiden name, that she pulls out multiple bottles of the good stuff, fruit still floating in it. And of course the mission to try all the cognacs of the former SSR’s is still afoot. So far, drinking Turkmen cognac with the Russian at Darwaza stands out as the pinnacle of this, but I will save that story for the completion of this goal.

That Soviet spirit also reflected in my Hungarian neighbors at Burning Man one year, who run a Pálinka bar. Of course Hungary’s unique linguistic standing reflected in the unique name they have for a liquor that’s called Rakia in almost every country around. Each time I leave or come home to camp I am treated to some homemade flavor. Everything from apricot to cherry to apple to pear to peach to walnut. 

It takes me the entire week to remember the Hungarian toast “Egészségedre!”

On leaving, we are trying to pry our deeply driven rebar out of hard, unforgiving, dry, prehistoric, lakebed. This year it seems impossible without bending the rebar. We hunt for better tools, and our neighbors shake their heads at us. They come over, grab a pole and a piece of rope to make a lever, and show us how it’s done.

Henceforth, this becomes the Hungarian method. Capable humans. 

And so many more, and the fine distinctions between brandy, cognac, and eau de vie… but today, it is grappa I am drinking.

I am touring the Poli Distillery and Museum in Schiavon, Italy. 

Poli Still

Days after my fun romp with Italian cars I find myself on a side trip to Bassano del Grappa to taste the oldest grappa at Nardini, a distillery in business since 1779.

Nardini bar

The area is beautiful. The crisp, clean waters of the Brenta and the city overlapping it make it clear why this area was chosen for grappa. Takes good water to make good liquor.

Covered bridge, Bassano del Grappa

At the museum and distillery I meet two of the Poli family, and am given a warm welcome. I get the feeling they don’t get too many random visitors.

I learn that grappa is made from the pomace of the grape and am permitted to sink my hands into the raw materials and feel the varieties of this material. I’m taken through every step of the making of the liquor and the history of the family, with all senses involved. It’s a beautiful experience.

Apart from one chilling moment.

We’re in a downstairs cellar room. The tour moves into a room that the tour guide introduces as the “Room of Heroes”. She tells us that this is the room where the grappa was hid during the war, to protect it from the invading soldiers. She tells the war history of the Poli family, and how proud they were to serve their country.

As a USAmerican, I’m like “What war?” for an instant before figuring out she means World War Two. We have been in so many wars that it’s hard for me to think of that as the most recent one.

I’m then slightly surprised, looking at the framed photos of Italian soldiers on the walls, and realizing it might as well be a basement in Germany where they hid the Schnapps covered with photos of Nazi “War Heroes”. Italy has a different attitude towards its history and involvement in the Holocaust than Germany or Japan. It’s super easy to forget about it there, even if you’re as obsessed with fascist architecture as I am.

As an American, the invading forces that they were hiding the grappa from, well, that was my countrymen. And those “Heroes”? They fought to genocide my ancestors. Hm. Still. Damn good grappa! 

Still like Singani the best though… My poor seed.

Bottle of Singani on a pink children's armoire

Posts about regional distillation:

Ruta Del Mezcal

Zwack Unicum and Family Legacy


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