Thursday, November 19, 2009

Root: The Cultural Liqueur of Late Capitalism

Root is a new spirit that claims to be based on root tea, an alcoholic precursor to root beer. This is one of the more interesting new spirits to come along in a while, both in flavor and philosophy.

Root is a product of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Art in the Age is a collective of artists, musicians and artisans that was founded in Philadelphia. The name is a reference to an essay by Frankfort School philosopher Walter Benjamin; this may, in fact, be the first spirit to subscribe to a specific, philosophical school. Indeed, the Art in the Age website includes a manifesto that ends with this rallying cry:

In this troubling epoch of industrial commodification, standardization of reproduction, and fomentation of a society of shallow spectacle, Art In The Age issues a challenge and rally cry. We fight fire with fire, subsuming the onslaught of watered down facsimiles and inaccessible displays with thought-provoking products of real cultural capital

Root appears to be the only spirit sold by Art in the Age. As noted above, Root is based on a recipe for root tea which the producers claim dates back to the eighteenth century. Root is certified organic, and is made with birch bark, smoked black tea, cinnamon, wintergreen, spearmint, clove, anise, orange, lemon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and cane sugar. It is made by Modern Spirits, a Southern California maker of flavored vodkas, so presumably, the base spirit is vodka, though Art in the Age claims that Root is not "root beer flavored vodka." Root is 40% alcohol and sells for around $35 to $40.

I tried Root neat as well as some Root based cocktails.

Root Neat

The nose is a sort of medicinal root beer smell, like some of the newer, craft root beers that include more botanicals. The first thing that hits your tongue is sweetness and birch bark/birch beer, these yield on the palate to spices, with clove and cinnamon on the forefront. I would not say it tastes like root beer, though it has definite commonalities. Sipped neat, this would make a nice after-dinner drink, in the same way that Absinthe does, in that the strong herbal flavors provide somewhat of a numbing sensation and leave your palate feeling rested.

The Rootini

The taste of Root is so distinctive that a really creative mixologist could probably do wonders with it. The connection to root beer makes you want to move it in a sweet direction, and most of the cocktail suggestions that Art in the Age provide do that, but Root is very sweet on its own, and I found that I missed some of the medicinal notes when it was paired with too much sugar.

One of the more successful cocktails Art in the Age suggests is a "Rootini" (I'm sorry, but the use of tini as a suffix just shouts "watered down facsimiles" to me). The Rootini consists of two ounces of Root, one ounce of vanilla liqueur and sugar. The addition of the vanilla (I used Navan) brings the flavor of this drink pretty close to root beer. It's good, but I think the vanilla masks the more funky, medicinal tastes of the Root. In playing around with it, it was much improved with a healthy shake of Fee's Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters. The cinnamon notes in the bitters really brought out some of the similar flavors in Root.

On a whim, because I'm that type of guy, I added a couple of drops of cask strength Laphroaig to an ounce of Root. The medicinal notes of the Laphroaig played well with the herbal notes of Root, and the added smoke made for a very interesting flavor profile. I'm guessing there is a fine drink to be made with Root and Laphroaig (though go lightly on the 'Phroaig or it will quickly overpower the Root). I'm personally challenging all of you mixologists out there to make this drink, and it should definitely be called the Root of All Evil.

Root is gradually entering the marketplace and can be found at most specialty liquor shops. It's a fun drink and is definitely worth a try.

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