Few spirits come served with a lesson in American history. Then again, not many are inspired by 18th-century Pennsylvania folk recipes.
Root, however, is an exception. Created by Steven Grasse (maker of Hendrick's gin), the 80-proof organic liqueur is a tribute to root tea, a pre-Temperance American spirit with roots -- no pun intended -- in Pennsylvania. In the late 1800s, root tea became, ironically, root beer after a Philadelphia pharmacist stripped the spirit of its alcohol. Grasse's creation, thankfully, brings the booze back.
Root was released in June by Philadelphia-based Art in the Age of Mechanical Production, and is available only in Pennsylvania. Made with ingredients like birch bark, cinnamon and spearmint, it boasts a distinct root-beer scent and a strong, smoky flavor.
"It's technically a liqueur, but it really drinks like a whiskey," says Grasse. "Then we have the fancy mixologists making all kinds of stuff with it."
Late last month, Pittsburgh bartenders did exactly that. On Nov. 24, Art in the Age hosted a Root cocktail competition at Bossa Nova, Downtown, challenging seven city barkeeps to create the best mixed drink using the new rose-colored liqueur. Alana Bly, owner of the Strip District's Firehouse Lounge/Embury, served up the night's winning cocktail.
Her Root Champerelle -- made with Root, yellow Chartreuse, Courvoisier, orange Curacao, lemon and simple syrup -- balances Root's bitterness with the sweetness of the Chartreuse.
"It's a clean, refreshing cocktail," she says, emphasizing the drink's honey and lemon notes. "This drink stood out because it didn't taste like root beer."
One second-place cocktail, however, maintains much of the birch flavor. Summer Voelker, a bartender at Yo Rita, on the South Side, tied for the runner-up position with her Root Malta -- a mixture of Root, rum, Malta syrup and vanilla soy milk, garnished with grated nutmeg.
"It's really good," says Voelker, noting that the root-beer flavor of the liqueur is complemented by the nuttiness of the soy milk. "We put it on our drink list because we liked it so much."
Whether you like your Root mixed in fancy, award-winning cocktails or simply straight-up with ice, Grasse recommends getting a little festive with his newest liquor this time of year.
"For the holidays," he says, "Root-nog is awesome."