I love Bitter Bar. I love going there and saying things like, “Mix me a drink that will make me like whiskey.”
When I heard about the Root tea event, it sounded like my kind of thing: an old-timey drink, supposedly based on an Indian recipe that was taught to white settlers but then converted to nonalcoholic root beer after Prohibition began in 1920 (courtesy of the Volstead Act).
Root claims to be the “first true American Liqueur in nearly 100 years.” I don’t know how to evaluate such a sweeping claim, but I do know that Root is a product of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, an artists collective in Philadelphia named after Walter Benjamin’s famous essay and founded by Steven Grasse, whose career as an advertising executive exposed him to a tad too much commercialism.
Grasse “rebranded” his agency and started making Hendrick’s gin (which tastes like cucumbers) and Sailor Jerry rum. His latest projects are the Art in the Age store and gallery in Philadelphia, Root tea, and 72 acres of land in New Hampshire, which may become an organic farm someday.
In short, Root tea and Steven Grasse are just the kind of subjects I love to discover and share with the rest of the world on this blog and over at Restoration Nation: originals that combine sustainability and history and the kind of business savvy I admire. Grasse knows how to make liquor that tastes good, which is important to someone like me, who eats and drinks not to get full or get drunk but to find a flavor I love.
Todd and I were the second group to arrive at the Bitter Bar (which is attached to Happy noodle house in Boulder), and it wasn’t long before Mark Stoddard set down a shot of Root and plates of food from the happy hour menu.
Root smelled sweet but tasted spicy. My first impression was of licorice, and the recipe does include star anise. The first cocktail was dominated by the ginger beer, in addition to the lime and mint, prompting Todd to comment that the mixologists at Bitter Bar love their ginger.
There were about ten of us by this time, so Nam, who goes around the country promoting Root tea, and Laura Price, director of PR, talked for a bit about the history of the liqueur, which is manufactured by Modern Spirits in California from organic ingredients. I, of course, asked them why, if Root was an indigenous liqueur, it included cardamon and cinnamon and nutmeg (which are not native to the Americas, unlike other ingredients such as sugarcane, spearmint, wintergreen, and birch bark*). I wanted to know what ingredients were in the original Pennsylvania folk recipe, but I suppose even that recipe would have departed from the original Indian recipe, whatever it was. Still, I wish I could trace it all the way back.
My favorite snack was the pork buns (bao buns), much less bready than those served at a dim sum restaurant and with a filling to die for. They came with sriracha aioli, which was good but unnecessary. (But what is up with those plates? The pattern makes it difficult to create any contrast with the food. They’re camouflage plates.) I also tried kimchi for the first time, a bright red, spicy, cabbage concoction that I loved (see the back of the picture, by the scallion). The pickled beets were cooling and had a firm texture, whereas the veggie crepes (not pictured) tasted like curry and had the consistency of baked squash. The salmon nigiri were all right, but the flavor of the sweet potato rice competed with the fish.
The second drink, which mixed Root with rye whiskey over allspice dram and apple cider ice cubes (left, at the top), was my favorite, although I liked the sweetness of the third drink pictured to the right (Root, yellow chartreuse, cranberry compote, maple bitters, over the Bitter Bar’s handmade special ice cubes) better than the antiseptic flavor of the first (the cocktail with the ginger beer).
As always, the staff at Bitter Bar impressed me with their knowledge and skill, and the people from Root made an effort to speak with everyone at the event. I wanted to leave a large tip, which all of them richly deserved, but was gently encouraged not to. Todd and I estimated the food and drinks were worth at least $50 per person, so if you have a chance to attend a Root tasting, I suggest you do so. It’s a great deal.
*Birch bark replaces sarsaparilla root, used in root beer, and also possibly sassafras bark. Someone at the tasting asked a question about the latter, which is banned by the Food and Drug Administration because it is a carcinogen.