If you follow developments in the cocktail world, then you're aware of the explosion of bitters, the revival of defunct or obscure ingredients like Creme Yvette and genever, and at long last the availability of non-rotgut unaged whiskeys. I strongly suspect in the next couple years you'll be hearing about the creation of "distinctly American" spirits. Cocktails have always been a Tex-Mex/Japanese pizza sort of fusion of European spirits (gin, liqueurs, etc), medicinal products (tonic water, bitters), and citrus, in a uniquely American combination. Some of those spirits have settled down and relocated on our soil -- bourbon and American rye are certainly much more common in cocktails than Scotch or Irish whiskey, there are distinctly American styles of gin, and distilleries like Prichard's and Tuthilltown Spirits have reclaimed rum distilling, once the most common distilled product in the US.
But what we're going to see is spirits that aren't just "American gins" or "American whiskeys," they're new things altogether. Some will be base spirits, some will be liqueurs, I don't know. Some of them will probably target the frat boy market and position themselves as "the American Jagermeister" or "the American peachtree schnapps."
Thankfully, Root hasn't.
Root is inspired by root beer, and there's probably nothing more American than that -- a beverage made with American ingredients, popular in this country in one form or another for a few hundred years.
This isn't a root beer schnapps: the sweetness is very low, and the proof is base-liquor-strength.
Root beer was originally made with sassafras, which Root lacks because of an FDA ban. Now, any southerner knows you can get around that ban -- the ban is because of safrole, a potentially carcinogenic component in sassafras, but Pappy's Sassafras Tea Concentrate is sold in supermarkets throughout the south, and is safrole-free. Pour that into an empty two-liter bottle, add 3/4 cup of sugar and a little yeast, fill with water, and cap, and in a few days you have root beer.
But I assume Art in the Age has a reason for avoiding sassafras in Root -- maybe whatever Pappy's does to get rid of the safrole isn't an option for them, I don't know -- and in any case, the product doesn't suffer from the lack. The botanicals they do use -- birch bark, lapsang souchong, orange and lemon peel, allspice, anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, wintergreen, and spearmint -- do an excellent job of creating a deep, complex root beer flavor. I admit I was more than a little gratified to see that they're using lapsang souchong, a smoked black tea which has been an ingredient I've occasionally included in my homemade root beer and colas for five or six years now. (I also use Szechuan peppercorns pretty often, Root folks, if you're reading this.)
The flavor is just unparalleled. Nevermind the fact that there is no similar product on the market to compare this to -- there is very little out there that's this complex. One of the things we like about gin, after all, is that it's not just juniper vodka: it has a flavor that emerges from a dozen other botanicals in support of that juniper. It's more interesting. It's a muffuletta instead of a bologna sandwich.
As a result of the pure sugar cane juice they distill for the base, it has just a little sweetness -- like rum.
It's a challenge to mix, though. The Root website has plenty of recipes from bartenders, and it mixes well with, say, ginger beer (though strong ginger covers up much of the spice in Root). But it's easy to hit a misfire when you try something new with it. Now, I expect with those "distinct American spirits" I mentioned we'll see, this is going to keep happening -- you can't slot this simply into an existing niche, the way you can take a new orange liqueur and make a Corpse Reviver #2 with it, or a new bitters and make an Old-Fashioned. Because it's so strong, mixing it with another base liquor can make a pretty hot drink, if you don't bring something else in to balance it out (it does go well with rye or Bulleit, though).
I'm looking forward to trying it with Bonal or Cocchi (see upcoming post on bitters). For the moment, my biggest successes with it have been Hot Buttered Root -- just hot buttered rum with Root instead of rum, which is a fantastic winter drink -- and Root on the rocks with a little ginger liqueur. I'm finding I'm not crazy about it with acidic flavors, so a Root sour didn't work for me, and I haven't tried it in variants of the Trinidad Sour or Shaddock, drinks that I try with most new things if I can make them fit.
It goes well with Malta sodas, but because Malta is so sweet, so's the resulting drink, and I keep feeling like that destroys the point of Root's low-sweetness.
I've toyed with a Manhattan variant, with various proportions of rye, Punt e Mes, and Root ... just haven't found a combination that sings yet, and I only have two ryes to choose from.
The Root site includes a cocktail by Phoebe Esmon at Chick's Cafe that uses fig puree, and that has me intrigued -- when figs come into season, I'm going to use some of the last of my Root playing around with those flavors, and then hope that Root is carried in New Hampshire soon ... because while it's challenging to play with, I like the challenge, and hell, there's nothing wrong with drinking it straight.