Centuries ago in northern Italy, men working outdoors during the winter would fortify themselves before heading out into the bitter cold. They sipped a local spirit distilled as a byproduct of grape residue left over from wine production.

That's where and how the earthy, 90-proof alcoholic potion known as "grappa" originated. Though it had counterparts in France (marc), Spain (aguardiente) and Portugal (bogaceira), grappa was a regional libation indigenous to that area, made in backyard stills and described as "like drinking fire".

Today, grappa has spilled across international borders. It was introduced to the United States in the 1970s, after producers started using a single grape variety, oak barrel aging and eye-catching packaging. Once perceived as a robust, rustic drink with a burning aftertaste for farmers and outdoorsmen, it has evolved into a mellow, elegant liqueur. The updated version is not your grandpa's grappa, appealing to more women and a wider market. Italy is the leading producer with 40 million bottles annually.

A "Poor Man's Brandy"

Originally referred to as a "poor man's brandy," grappa results from the distillation of skins, stems, seeds and pulp remaining after grapes are pressed and filtered into wine. During the 19th century in northern Italy, portable stills were moved from winery to winery to distill the vinaccia (pomace) of whatever wine was made. Little attention was paid to the quality of the grapes or crushed skin.

Historically, grappa contained enough tannin to tweak your tongue and plenty of alcohol to keep you warm in frigid weather. It was considered too fiery for most wine drinkers, but acceptable to liqueur/spirits aficionados who enjoyed finishing dinner with a sip or two. It also was used as a potent painkiller and cure-all.

In its simplest form, grappa is made by adding water to the pomace, fermenting and distilling the mash in a traditional still. Distillation involves heating the water and pulp until vapors are formed. The steam is then collected and placed in another container to be cooled and condensed into a liquid with an elevated alcohol content. New-age grappa is about 40-45 percent alcohol.

More sophisticated lifestyles and palates have called for upscale grappa, prompting winemakers to take on the challenge of squeezing every dollar out of their business by turning once discarded grape waste into a profitable product. Italy's top wineries are producing the drink, but not at the main location because it's against the law to make wine and distillates at the same facility.

Grapes Influence Flavor

Though premium grappa comes mostly from the misty hills of Piedmont and rocky contours of Friuli, distillers are scattered throughout the country. Among the best-selling brands are Nonino, Romano Levi and Jacopo Poli, each made with such select grapes as Chardonnay, Moscato, Merlot or Barolo.

According to Andrew Knowlton, deputy editor of Bon Appetit magazine, Merlot grapes yield a sweet note along with the complex flavor of a good red wine. Moscato is more floral in aroma and taste, while Chardonnay is a tad more bland than the others, but is a compatible component in cocktails.

The South Tyrolean brand emphasizes grappa's digestif values that promote digestion and soothe the stomach following a hearty meal. It recommends serving it in a tulip-shaped or cognac glass for maximum enjoyment. The best way to savor it is to fill the glass one-quarter full, wait 10 minutes for it to settle, inhale the aroma, take a sip, swish it around in your mouth and swallow slowly.

Grappa: A Staple of Italian Recipes

Grappa has become so ingrained in Italy's culinary culture that a museum dedicated to it has been established in Bassano del Grappa, a town of 43,000 in the Vicenza area. On display are historical distilling equipment, production documents and decorative glass bottles.

Just as wine has become an integral element in countless Italian recipes, grappa has found its way into numerous dishes. It often is added to espresso and desserts like sbrisolona crumb cake. It also puts a kick into biscotti (almond cookies) and gelato, and is blended with Crème di Cassis and cranberry juice in a Grappatini cocktail.

Italian restaurants in the U.S. like Valentino in Santa Monica, CA have jumped aboard the grappa bandwagon big-time. The restaurant offers 20 labels ranging in price from $10 to $25 per glass. Says owner Piero Selvaggio: "Cheap grappa used to burn your throat. But Italian producers have learned to smooth it out like a fine brandy."

Retailers such as Binny's Beverage Depot, with 32 stores throughout metro Chicago, keep up with the public demand by stocking 45 brands. Per bottle prices go from $16.99 (Pisoni Grappa di Stravecchia) to $233 (Berta).

Grappa has successfully overcome a bad rap as a harsh, nearly undrinkable booze to a light, fragrant drink suitable for sipping it by itself or capping off a sumptuous meal. It's almost like a whole vineyard distilled into one tiny glass.