Legends: The Mad Man’s Next Act

He used shock ads (Charles Manson, anyone?) and a punk attitude to flip the city’s advertising community on its ear. So why is Steven Grasse now trying to return Philly to the days of the powdered wig?

 IT’S ALWAYS COCKTAIL hour somewhere in the world, and right now, though the clock has yet to chime five, Steven Grasse is mixing up an unusual, and surprisingly tasty, concoction at the kitchen counter of his sprawling farmhouse. His ingredients include a simple six-pack of root beer, ice, and a generous portion of a thin brown liquor called Root, which he pours into four big beer mugs from a squat clear-glass bottle that looks like it was procured from an apothecary shop a century ago.

A daylong rain has drenched the rocky earth outside Grasse’s newly acquired 72-acre estate, which spreads out along a hill above the tiny postcard-New–England hamlet of Tamworth, New Hampshire. There’s already the steady sound of a swirling breeze, and winds up north in the rugged White Mountains will push southward and pound the red-painted, cedar-shingled house through the night. But inside, Grasse fills the glasses in the bright, modern kitchen of the 100-year-old, 14-room manse, and passes the mugs to his pretty, stylish and significantly younger-looking wife, Sonia, and then to his road-weary guests.  “It’s really good,” he promises. “You’ll like it.”

Then Mister Grasse, 45, fit as a fiddle and bald as a billiard ball, takes a seat in a worn wingback chair in front of a blazing hearth and enjoys a healthy quaff of his drink. After 20 years as Philadelphia’s rebellious, profane, punk-rock-inspired — and most famous, if not notorious — advertising man, he’s trying on a new guise. Steven Grasse will go forward by going back — back to the days of mercantilism and manufacturing, to the days when men made things and sold them fair and square. Of course, some of those men got remarkably rich by controlling all aspects of production and distribution and not being exactly fair and square, their rapacious efficiency earning them the title “robber barons.” “That’s what I want to be,” Grasse says with his trademark delivery, which manages to combine a few jiggers of sincerity with a dash of smirk.

His first major step on this new path toward plutocrat is the tangy 80-proof brown liquor now swirling in our glasses. Root, purportedly based on a concoction created by Pennsylvania’s indigenous people and passed on to the early settlers, is a Grasse production from start to finish: recipe to bottle to labeling to promotion. After an initial launch limited to Pennsylvania’s state store system, he’s ready to roll out nationally. And new products are in the pipeline at the Old City company he calls Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which in turn is part of a newly minted agency called Quaker City Mercantile. All he needs now is to grow some muttonchops and buy a top hat.

Yes indeed, says Grasse: “I want to be a robber baron. But a benign one.”