Sunday, May 6, 2012

Liquid: Root of the Matter

Everyone likes root beer, right? It brings back fond memories of childhood - of big, frothy mugs of the stuff topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, of being a really chubby fifth grader. (Ah, the good old days.) But there's one glaring problem that root beer has had for more than a century: it's a lot more root than beer. You see, when it started out in 18th-century Pennsylvania, in a recipe that riffed off of a Native American "root tea" made with sassafras, birch bark, and sarsaparilla, it was actually an alcoholic beverage. But in the 19th century, when the temperance movement was taking hold, Dr. Killjoy Nofun - ahem, Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires - nixed the alcohol content, repackaged it as a soft drink, and only then christened his creation with its beery name (which was kind of a dick move, if you ask me). 

Now a new spirit wants to bring root beer back to its roots. (See what I did there?) It's called, fittingly enough, Root. Because it's made in small batches, until recently you'd only find it in its home state of Pennsylvania. But we've finally started to see it pop up on shelves in Boston, including those at Eastern Standard (528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.9100), Bricco (241 Hanover Street, Boston, 617.248.6800), and The Gallows (1395 Washington Street, Boston, 617.425.0200). It's somewhat akin to rum in that it's made from sugar cane. But it's imbued with herbs we typically associate with root beer's flavor: anise, birch bark, cloves, cardamom, and vanilla bean. I find it surprisingly drinkable on its own, and it plays well in a variety of cocktail styles - though be careful not to let it overpower the other ingredients.

Brand creator Steven Grasse keeps things simple, he says, and mixes Root with ginger beer or root beer (which must create some sort of cocktail time paradox). Dropping it into porter or stout works as well. At Eastern Standard, I tried it mixed with apple jack, orgeat, and lemon juice, and again with allspice dram, Old Monk rum, and shaved nutmeg. Both were shaken with a nice frothy egg white, which served the richness of the spirit well.

It's a vast improvement over various past attempts to replicate good old-fashioned alcoholic root beer. "This is completely different from all of those gimmicky root-beer-flavored spirits out there," Grasse says. "For one, they all tend to be chemically flavored and syrupy sweet. What we have done is to research the historic recipe for colonial-era root tea. . . . We went back to the original recipe and amped up the proof to 80 so that it drinks more like a whiskey. It has a very unique taste. Everyone said we were crazy to launch it because there is nothing else like it on the market." Not unless your favorite bar comes equipped with a time machine.

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