America is, as these things go, a relatively young country. Even so, there are traditions that date from our more agrarian past that have been lost in the these industrialized – and supposedly more civilized – times. One of these traditions is “root tea,” alcoholic concoctions made from local herbs and roots and, like amaro, turned from medicinal use into something that could be used as a digestif or as the basis for any number of cocktails. There’s really no telling how many versions of root tea there were across the country in the 18th and 19th century, but we can be sure of when their production suffered a killing blow: Prohibition. With alcohol being banned by law, and root tea specifically targeted by many municipalities, the nascent native liquor industry of the United States turned into the milder soft drink known as “root beer,” and even when liquor was allowed again, no traditional “root tea” beverage ever gained popularity in America again.
Or at least that’s how the story seemed to end – that is, until a Philadelphia-based group called Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction began producing their ROOT liqueur. ROOT is an attempt at creating a traditional root tea using organic cane sugar, birch bark, smoked black tea, cinnamon, winter green, spearmint, clove, anise, orange, lemon, nutmeg, allspice, and cardamom – and it all comes together to create a complex drink that is reminiscent of really good root beer but far more complex than that. There are so many levels working in ROOT that it’s hard to really describe how good this stuff is. There’s the astringent flavor of the mint tempered by the warmth of cardamom, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. It starts sweet on the tongue but finishes with a clean dryness that prevents the drink from ever becoming cloying. And while ROOT is delicious neat or on the rocks, it’s also wonderful with club soda, ginger beer – or our indulgent favorite, mixed with cream soda. ROOT is a unique drink, not to be confused with some sort of awful root beer flavored vodka or novelty drink: it’s full on deliciousness, smooth and rich.
I first read about ROOT in an issue of Antenna magazine, and I found the description of the liqueur so compelling that I immediately started hunting for it. Art in the Age was only just ramping up their distribution of ROOT, and Arkansas has never been high on anybody’s list of places to send new drinks. Finally, after a wait of almost two years, we found it at Colonial Wine and Spirits in Little Rock – and for much cheaper than we expected. Two years of anticipation can set a man up for disappointment, but that first sip of ROOT was everything I wanted it to be, and it’s quickly become my favorite thing to drink. Branch out and try it – I guarantee you’ve never tasted anything quite like it. Enjoy!