It wasn’t so long ago that I was oohing and aahing over the growth of the craft beer industry in the region — Victory this, Yards that. Then someone decided to throw a $250,000 copper still into a warehouse in the Far Northeast, and — voilà! — Philadelphia Distilling’s award-winning Bluecoat gin, Penn 1681 vodka and Vieux Carré absinthe were born. And suddenly, we were so much more than just a microbrew town.
But it’s fair to say I wasn’t anticipating Root. Developed through a partnership between local artsy brand Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and the company responsible for the success of Hendrick’s gin and Sailor Jerry rum, certified-organic Root is promoted as the “first truly American liqueur since the pre-Prohibition era.” While it is indeed a new type of liqueur, it’s akin to spirits like rum and whiskey. But the, er, roots of Root go back much further.
Before William Penn settled the region, even before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Native Americans in North America readily consumed a medicinal beverage known as root tea. When settlers arrived in what is now Pennsylvania, the root tea recipe morphed into the popular Pennsylvania Dutch birch (or root) beer that we all drank growing up and that we revisit today with our kids at throwback places like Weber’s and Franklin Fountain.
When a sample of Root arrived via courier at the office recently, I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to like it. Nor was my editor. We prefer our drinks grown-up, so the “root beer” comparisons had us skeptical. While there’s a pretty obvious nostalgia thing going on with Root — including a deep, dark color and spicy smell — it’s much more complex than that, with a pleasing combination of citrus, smoke, pepper and, yes, a little sweetness. I tried it neat, with one ice cube (better than neat), and mixed in a variety of cocktails. The 80-proof spirit works well in obvious pairings — try it in one of P.Y.T.’s alcoholic milkshakes. But it also combines surprisingly well with gin, rye or scotch. Both Southwark and APO have been experimenting.
So you can decide for yourself, we’ve arranged a Root Cocktail Competition, pitting some of the city’s most venerable bartenders against one another in a mix-off at Silk City on July 28th. (See our Restaurant Club blog for more information.) In the meantime, bottles of Root just hit the shelves for $34.99, so get drinkin’.