Organic liquor blending tradition and innovation
It's not a new product, but for the first time Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction's signature liquor, Root, is available outside of creator Steve Grasse's home state of Pennsylvania. Art in The Age, which hosts a retail store in Philadelphia, is a brand named after Walter Benjamin's landmark 1936 essay, "Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction," the themes of which Grasse tried to incorporate into everything he produces, "Emphasizing a pre-industrial ethos, before mass production turned everything crappy", he says.
As a man who prefers gin martinis or straight whisky over flavored liquors, Root surprised me with its layered, complex flavor. It does make everything taste like root beer, and the fact is if you don't like sugary things you won't like Root. It's sweet—in fact I joke that it is what a 14-year-old would drink to get drunk—but it is also 80 proof, old-timey, and delicious.
Grasse, a principal of the creative agency Quaker City Mercantile, is the creator of Hendrick's Gin and Sailor Jerry rum. After he sold those brands to William Grant and Sons (they own Glenfiddich and Stoli, and are now partners in Quaker City Mercantile) in 2006, he was looking to challenge himself. "I wanted to come up with something that doesn't fit into any category and is in the plainest possible bottle. I wanted to purposely handicap myself," says Grasse.
What he developed was Root. Using American herbs, including anise, birch bark, cloves, spearmint and cardamom, he distilled a certified organic spirit based on root tea, the recipe for which goes back to the 1700s. "I thought it would be interesting to create something that was Authentically American," he says.
"I read about root tea and how it was a small beer, that's a beer with low alcohol content," he says. "Charles Hires was the one who took the alcohol out of root tea and rechristened it 'root beer'. I was inspired by the root tea story. I decided to make it way more alcoholic, but use those same ingredients." But the goal was also to create something personal - growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Grasse had always loved root beer. "Spirits tend to have these wild stories of origin based on exotic places. Some of the weirdest, most exotic people I know live in Lancaster county."
His distributors were skeptical. "They said, 'No one will buy this. No one will find it in the store. It doesn't taste like anything out there.' I told them, 'People will discover it.' The fact that it doesn't taste like anything else will be the story."
Instead of paying bars and bartenders to push the stuff, Grasse went grassroots. He placed Root at farmer's markets, where he would lay out the herbs for people to smell, and have samples in which people could dip bread to try it. He sponsored a chili cook-off and worked with the Pennsylvania Historical Society. "I said, 'I want the fat civil war enthusiast who plows through a bottle of scotch a day to love it. And they will. They'll take it to their dinner parties and they'll talk about it'," says Grasse. He also put all his focus on getting the stuff into liquor stores, not bars. "Usually a brand is launched entirely in the bars, with mixologists," he says. "The industry is ripe to be fucked with. It's like payola. They get the bartenders in their pocket."
His efforts seem to have paid off. Root is spreading throughout the US, and Grasse has since rolled out Snap, a ginger liquor, Rhuby, based on rhubarb, and Spodee, a high-alcohol, herbed wine distributed in milk bottles. For Grasse, a history buff, the joy is in producing something traditional, and American, but also in doing something truly different, and messing with the system.
"How many more vodkas or rye whiskeys can there be on the market?" he asks. "New vodkas have become parodies of themselves."