A liqueur named Root

June 1, 2011

“You’re not going to pour me one of those bitter Italian things again, are you?”

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that. You see, for years I’ve been an amaro advocate, talking up those strange, bitter, herbal liqueurs to anyone willing to listen.

I’m a big fan of cocktail lists that call for an amaro in some form of Manhattan or Negroni variation. At home, I’m forever pouring some newbie a little Fernet Branca or Averna or Montenegro or Cynar or whatever other new digestivo I have in my cabinet. “Even though amaro means ‘bitter,’ there’s always a sweet element, too!” I explain.

Yet despite my best efforts, most normal people (read: those who aren’t cocktail geeks) take a sip, wince and then never give amaro a second chance. I persist, though at that point I fear I’m becoming a bitter bore.

This time, however, I’m taking a different tack. I promise not to go all Europhile on you. Today, in fact, let’s talk about amaro in the context of something as American as it gets. Let’s talk about root beer — and about a liqueur named Root.


Medicine Lodge cocktail. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Growing up in the orbit of Philadelphia, I always understood that we lived in a bountiful land of root beer. Philadelphia, after all, is where pharmacist Charles Hires developed his famed carbonated soft drink and served it at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

Not only did I grow up with Hires Root Beer for ice-cream floats, I also was raised on root beer’s red-tinted Pennsylvania Dutch cousin, birch beer (made with birch root instead of sassafras root). If you grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, there are probably few things in life that more vividly evoke summer than cold birch beer and a slice of thin-crust boardwalk pizza.

So now you might be asking: What do root beer and birch beer — and this little walk down memory lane — have to do with amaro?

Colonial settlers in early America were making alcoholic “root tea” based on Native American recipes — from sassafras, sarsaparilla, birch bark and other roots and herbs — from at least the 18th century. The only real difference between these rustic “teas” and many of the old European liqueurs we know lies in the local plants, herbs and roots used, and perhaps in the more-refined distilling that was done by the monks in the old country.

Like the old herbal elixirs back in Italy and France, root tea was created from local ingredients as a cure for various ailments. And just as herbal concoctions became popular in Europe to drink in non-medicinal settings, root teas soon became a fixture in the taverns of the northeastern American colonies.

Had things progressed as they did in Europe, we might today have a viable culture of herbal digestivi. But alas, over here we had something called Prohibition. As root tea grew in popularity, it also became a target for the growing temperance movement in the mid-19th century. Root tea was often banned by name as states went dry.

This is where Charles Hires comes in. Pro-temperance, he developed his recipe based on a root tea with more than two dozen ingredients that he had been served while on his honeymoon at a New Jersey farmhouse in the 1860s. Back at his drugstore in Philadelphia, he figured out how to remove the alcohol and then added carbonation. Thus, root beer was born. Root tea, meanwhile, disappeared from American life. Until recently, that is.

A couple of years ago, a small producer in Pennsylvania developed Root, an attempt to replicate early American root tea using organic ingredients such as birch bark, wintergreen, black tea, sugar cane, citrus peels, baking spices and essence of sassafras.

When Root first launched, it was pitched to the spirits market as a “root beer liqueur.” It ended up getting shelved with lousy flavored vodkas and other sickly-sweet stuff. That was unfortunate, because Root, although it has the genuinely lovely aroma of root beer, is also a bracing 80-proof and has much of the complex bitterness of, well, an Italian amaro.

I revisited Root not too long ago, and after sipping it, I realized that what I really had in my hands was an honest-to-goodness American amaro. With that in mind, I began to experiment.

As with amari or other high-proof liqueurs, you don’t want to use too much. But in the right proportion, Root pairs beautifully with American spirits such as rye whiskey and apple brandy or applejack. The two accompanying recipes, the Pennsylvania Dutch Manhattan and the Medicine Lodge, both showcase Root without letting it take over.

Best of all, with Root, I’m working on a new strategy in my continuing campaign to convert people to the pleasures of amaro. “Oh, no, this isn’t one of those bitter Italian things,” I’ll tell them. “This is all-American. I mean, you like root beer, right?”

Recipes:

Medicine Lodge

Pennsylvania Dutch Manhattan

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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