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?

“What I do in my spare time is, I read biographies of robber barons,” says Grasse, a self-described history geek. “I’m obsessed with people like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. I’m sure they were evil. But that’s not the point with me. With me it’s that these guys had the gumption to get out there and do it all. They actually saw that they had to control all the aspects of it to get it done. I think America has lost a lot of that. I look at it and say, ‘How can I do that in a smart way?’ In this country, you can no longer get rich taking a pile of money from here and moving it over here. You have to start making things.”

An old-fashioned mercantile empire based on booze?

“I think I understand spirits,” Grasse says. “What’s great about spirits brands: Once they get going, they stay going. People are very loyal. Most of the spirits brands on the market have been on the market for a hundred years. Ninety-nine percent fail. The ones that take off go forever.”

One morning at his farm, Grasse gathered us into a big black SUV and drove a few miles down a long hill into the town of Tamworth. He has just bought the general store here, and is planning to turn it into a micro-distillery where he can test-brew concoctions based on organic ingredients grown locally — even on his own gentleman’s farm, when he gets it up and running again.  

“Why not an onion-and-rutabaga liquor?” he’d said enthusiastically at dinner the night before, though that particular spirit idea sank quickly among his small focus group. In fact, his next liquor launch, to be called Snap (“I sent the distiller gingersnap cookies and told him to make that”), is produced at the same organic distillery in California that makes Root. Snap is set to be available in state stores as early as this spring. “We want to be the defining brand in the organic–spirits market,” Grasse says. “It’s just getting started, but it’s going to be huge. I want to be the Whole Foods of spirits.”

So, after two decades spent regularly shocking Philadelphia with his advertising antics, of, in his own words, “celebrating the wild decadence of American consumerism,” Steven Grasse has settled down and literally bought the farm. The self-styled punk-rock pitchman has even joined the Union League.

“It didn’t all happen at once,” he says. “But it was about reaching a certain point and asking, ‘What am I doing?’ I want to do something that I can tell my kids about and feel proud. Something my kids can say, ‘My dad does this.’” (Of course, exhibiting the same fierce insistence on secrecy that shrouds his earnings, Grasse is so protective of his children that he stipulated their names not be mentioned in this article.)