Q: What do a Native American medicinal herbal drink, lebkuchen, and a legendary (if possibly apocryphal) tea brewed by Benjamin Franklin have in common?
A: They've all served as the inspiration for unique and exciting liqueurs from Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Root, Snap, and Rhuby liqueurs are the latest spirited brainchildren of Steven Grasse. Steven is no newcomer to the world of big booze—he's the man who created Hendricks Gin, Sailor Jerry Rum, and oversaw the rebranding of Narragansett beer. Tired of being pigeonholed into traditional liquor categories and looking for a new challenge, he turned to Pennsylvania history and found his muse. So far Steven has released three organic spirits with AtA, and true to form, each story is nearly as rich and flavorful as the spirit it imbues.
When the early settlers were introduced to a medicinal blend of herbs and spices by Native Americans, they dubbed the concoction "root tea." Mix some enterprising brewers and the lack of readily available potable freshwater, and root beer was born. Flash forward a few centuries and countless variations of the drink, distill it, and voila: Root!
Although it doesn't contain sassafras root (now thought to be carcinogenic), Art in the Age has captured the flavor profile with 13 organic ingredients: wintergreen, spearmint, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, allspice, birch bark, anise, smoked black tea, lemon, orange, nutmeg, and sugar cane. It tastes pretty much like you'd imagine—boozy root beer liqueur with a complex herbal kick. Though not syrupy, it is definitely a rich digestif, drier than Jägermeister but sweeter than Fernet Branca. It makes a killer spiked root beer float!
While lebkuchen is not a new world innovation, the Pennsylvania Dutch popularized the German treat throughout the colonies. The blackstrap molasses used to sweeten these cookie/cakes was viewed as very "ethnic" and unsophisticated when contrasted with the refined sugar which dominated transatlantic trade and represented progress in food technology. However, the depth of flavor in molasses is indispensable to the lebkuchen, and thus is the central ingredient in Art in the Age's spirited interpretation.
Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, rooibos tea, ginger, brown sugar, and vanilla round out the recipe. Sweeter and thicker than Root, it's a rummy spice cake in a glass. The ginger isn't as prominent as I would like, but the vanilla and cinnamon play well with the dark molasses sweetness (if you're looking for a little more ginger, try making your own ginger liqueur!). I think Snap is a bit too sweet to drink on its own, but it would add a fun twist to a Dark and Stormy and could replace spiced rum in your favorite rum cocktail.
Benjamin Franklin, among a few other things, was an avid botanist. He was the first to bring rhubarb seeds back to the new world from the other side of the pond. His friend John Bartram was the lucky recipient, and they supposedly brewed a delightful herbal tea from the red vegetable and a few other herbs from his garden.
Art in the Age has re-imagined that mythical tea as a garden liqueur. Rhubarb, carrots, beets, lemon, petitgrain, cardamom, pink peppercorn, coriander, and vanilla flavor the cane sugar spirit, and the result is intriguing. It's unlike any other spirit I know of—light and piquant, with an herbal, peppery bite, yet slightly sweet and earthy on the finish. Try a RGT—rhuby, gin, and tonic for a refreshing botanical cocktail.
Have you tried these bottles? What did you think?
Samples provided for review consideration.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distillers and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.