Italian Firewater: Grappa
As best as we can figure, grappa was invented by 11th-century Italian monks fiddling with the leftovers of the winemaking process: grape pulp, seeds, stems, and juices. Distilled and purified, the resulting after-dinner liqueur can range from clear to amber (which is usually aged), morbido ("soft" and smooth) to duro ("hard" and quite harsh to the uninitiated).
This Italian firewater was long known as aqua vitae, the "water of life," for its purported medicinal and restorative properties. Over the ages, it was believed to do everything from reviving the vital spirits, warming the belly (undoubtedly), relaxing the brain, sharpening the intellect, and clearing the vision to removing bodily impurities, repairing memory, prolonging life, and even curing the plague. The only benefit now touted -- aside from inflicting raging intoxication -- is its role as the ultimate digestivo, capable of helping settle your stomach after a huge Italian meal. And, scientific evidence aside, I can confirm from personal experience that grappa does indeed cure the common cold.
Nowadays, grappa is distilled from Piedmont in the west to Friuli in the east and as far south as Tuscany. You'll find bottles in all shapes and sizes; some seem to be sold more as works of glass blowers' art than for the liqueur inside. There are labels hailing from renowned grappa distilleries, high-grade aqua vitae produced by vineyards (which have often raised the bar on grappa quality by forgoing the winemaking process entirely, distilling the stuff from whole grapes rather than just the scraps), and homemade hooch made in copper stills that are wheeled from farm to farm.
The most renowned producer in Bassano is Nardini, Ponte Vecchio 2 (tel. 0424-227-741; www.nardini.it), run by the same family since 1779. It is the leader in grappa production, responsible for 25% of the Italian market, and its wood-beam taverna at the base of the Ponte degli Alpini is on the register of Italy's Historic Locales. Most people order a Rosso, the house version of Campari and soda, using Nardini's own "Rosso" hair-tonic liqueur. Walk out onto the bridge a bit to look back at the building's wall to see the bullet marks in the plaster from French rifles giving chase to the Archduke of Austria on May 3, 1889.
Just up the street sits Poli (tel. 0424-524-426; www.poligrappa.com), founded in 1898 at nearby Schiavon, where its production is still centered. This Bassano sales outlet is a slick operation, with less atmosphere than Nardini, but it does incorporate a small but very informative grappa museum. It's all in Italian, but if you recall the basics of distillation from high-school science (or your college dorm), it all makes sense -- and the elegant glass and copper machinery is beautiful in its own way. Plus, tastings here are free.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.