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NOGAREDO, Italy (Reuters) - For more than 150 years, Italian grappa has been popular as a cheap and strong drink for poor men trying to chase away the hardships of daily life.
But as the thirst for grappa dried up on the domestic market, its producers realized that making farmers' booze was not enough to win back traditional clients or carve a niche on the world spirits market dominated by such heavyweights as cognac, whisky and vodka.
With a rather limited output - about 35-40 million 0.7 liter bottles of Italian grappa are produced a year against nearly 163 million bottles of French cognac sold around the world in 2011 - Italian grappa makers have decided to bet on quality rather than volumes to compete.
They now pour millions of euros into refining their product and transforming it into a fashionable drink.
"With consumption falling there was no other way than to make a top quality product. The trend now is to make an elite, niche product," said Andrea Marzadro, who with his brother owns and runs one of the biggest grappa distilleries in Italy.
Marzadro is among 20 distillers from the northern Italian province of Trento. Members of the Istituto Tutela Grappa del Trentino consortium, they produce Grappa Trentina whose trident label is a guarantee of top quality.
While keeping with the old tradition of making a distilled spirit from grape pomace - skins, seeds and sometimes stalks - left over after grapes have been squeezed to produce wine, they have very strict production rules and quality controls.
First of all, fresh pomace is delivered straight to distilleries, instead of sitting for days in winemakers' backyards, to avoid uncontrolled fermentation.
If in the past a mix of different grape skins was good enough to make grappa, nowadays producers tend to distil different pomace separately and blend them at a later stage to refine the taste of the final product.
Purists, like most of the Grappa Trentina makers, remove the stalks to soften grappa. It takes 100 kg of grapes, which are squeezed into 9-12 kg of pomace, to produce 1-4 bottles of grappa, its makers say.
Second, a steam-heated distillation method is used instead of direct flame heating to exclude any possibility of burning grape skins that could spoil the grappa's taste.
Stringent temperature control is observed during distillation to separate toxic spirits, such as methanol, while at the end of the production process grappa is refrigerated and filtered to cut out the oils that leave drinkers with a hangover headache.
The result is a fiery but at the same time smooth drink which first burns the throat but then leaves a pleasant fruity or flowery aftertaste.
"We now have a noble product. Grappa has improved so much that it deserves a place on the table next to cognac," said Bruno Pilzer, deputy head of Istituto Tutela Grappa del Trentino.
Only 3 percent of Italian grappa is sold abroad, mostly in nearby European countries and the United States, a drop in the ocean compared to the 97 percent of French cognac that is sold in 157 countries, according to Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.
To lure foreign consumers Italians have recently started making aged, or "invecchiata", grappa whose amber hue is reminiscent of cognac or whisky.
Traditional clear-water grappa acquires color and specific taste with traces of chocolate, coffee and even tobacco, after spending at least 12 months in oak, ash or cherry barrels.
"The future of grappa abroad is invecchiata," said Alessandro Marzadro, a nephew of Andrea and the third generation of grappa makers in the family.
The latest trend in grappa making is organic grappa produced from grapes grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers to meet demand from a small but steadily growing number of health-conscious consumers in Italy and abroad.
Bertagnolli Distillery, one of the oldest in Italy dating back to 1870, is putting on sale its first organic grappa in spring, despite production costs which are about 30 percent higher than those of traditional grappa.
"We believe in this market, we believe it will grow," said owner Beppe Bertagnolli, who is also the chairman of Istituto Tutela Grappa del Trentino.
On top of the alleged health benefits, organic grappa has a softer taste than the traditional variety because organic grapes have lower acidity, Bertagnolli enologist Michele Schonsberg said.
As grappa moves upmarket, its producers have started using hand-made and hand-painted bottles to attract wealthy consumers.
Well-known Nonino grappa, packaged in elegant bottles made by the famous Venini glass makers, has a 1,300 euro ($1,700) price tag in Milan's upscale food store Peck. A bottle of good quality grappa costs on average 16-18 euros across Italy.
Foreign tourists who want to bring home a nice souvenir from Italy are the main buyers of top-shelf grappa, a sommelier at Peck said.
On the broader market, cheap low quality grappa sold at 6-7 euros a bottle in large quantities remains the main competitor for makers of Grappa Trentina, limiting the reputation of their top quality product.
The old image of plonk grappa is difficult to shrug off, producers say.
"We've had some tough experiences in Britain where clients at first did not even want to hear about grappa. But then, when they tried it, they couldn't get enough," Andrea Marzadro said leaning against a cylindrical copper still at his distillery.
($1 = 0.7504 euros)
Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova, editing by Paul Casciato