In the 1700’s, it was called “Root Tea.” An herbal remedy made with sassafras, sarsaparilla, birch bark and other wild roots and herbs. Native Americans taught the recipe to colonial settlers. As it was passed it down from generation to generation, it grew in potency and complexity. Particularly in the Pennsylvania hinterlands, where the ingredients naturally grow in abundance.
At the close of the 19th century, as the Temperance movement conspired to take the fun out of everything, a Philadelphia pharmacist removed the alcohol from Root Tea and rechristened it (ironically) “Root Beer”. He did this so that hard drinking Pennsylvania coal miners and steelworkers could enjoy it in place of true alcoholic refreshment. He introduced his “Root Beer” in a big way at the still legendary 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The rest, as you know, is flaccid history
Here at Art in the Age, we thought it would be interesting and fun to turn back the clock and recreate a true pre-temperance alcoholic Root Tea. We’ve even made it certified organic, since back then, everything was organic. This is the opposite of corporate culture. It’s a genuine experience rooted in history and our own landscape. It is a truly interesting and contemplative quaff. Certainly like nothing else we have ever tasted before. It is NOT Root Beer flavored vodka or a sickly sweet liqueur.
What would happen, we asked,if we took a traditional German “Lebkuchen” and distilled the ingredients into an organic spirit? What is a lebkuchen, you ask? A ginger snap!
But not the mass-market, high-fructose junk at the supermarket. We’re talking a real Pennsylvania Dutch (which actually means Pennsylvania German, not Dutch. Many years ago, someone apparently misheard “deutsch” for “dutch”) ginger snap made with hearty blackstrap molasses and fresh ginger. The kind our mothers, grandmothers, and great-great-great-grandmothers used to make.
“Lebkuchen” was invented by German monks in the 12th century and first appeared in America in the late 1600s when German Anabaptists looking for religious freedom came to Pennsylvania to be part of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Although most people don’t know it, the Pennsylvania Dutch are a diverse and tolerant bunch, encompassing a mix of religions and the non-religious. What they all had in common was a strenuous work ethic and a robust culinary tradition. Because these early Germans were rustic farmers, they baked with hearty blackstrap molasses rather than refined sugar. Back then, this was considered backward and unsophisticated by the “English,” but today we know otherwise.
Blackstrap molasses retains the natural goodness that gets stripped away by the refining process. It also provides a very distinct and earthy flavor.
Of course, the Pennsylvania Dutch didn’t distill a Lebkuchen spirit. That was our idea. But we think it is a delicious one. There are other alcoholic ginger products on the market, but they are either sickly sweet liqueuers or artificially flavored vodkas. This is a sophisticated organic spirit based on authentic folk history designed for people who know how to drink. It’s the kind of genuine experience we wish there was more of in the world. Try it and you will say “nix besser,” which is Pennsylvania Dutch for “none better.“
If you grew up in rural Pennsylvania, chances are you’ve consumed your share of rhubarb. Pies, teas, jams…for a few months a year, it seems like it’s everywhere and in everything. The roots of the Keystone State’s rhubarbiness go all the way back to our favorite insanely industrious and pioneering founding father, Ben Franklin.
Aside from leading a revolution and discovering electricity, Franklin was an avid agriculturalist and best friend of botanist John Bartram. In fact, Franklin brought the first rhubarb seeds from Europe to America as a gift for Mr. Bartram in 1771. (Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia is America’s oldest botanical garden. If you haven’t visited, you really should.) Point in fact, rhubarb originally came from China, where it was used as an herbal tonic. In the late 18th century, cane sugar became more affordable, which changed the way rhubarb was enjoyed.
Upon discovering the capacity of sugar to release the wonders of the plant’s intrinsic flavor, rhubarb migrated from a fold tonic to a tasty treat. Legend has it, Bartram was so enthused with rhubarb, he concocted a lovely garden tea showcasing his new botanical prize. We were mulling over this story when we came up with the idea of creating our own Art in the Age garden spirit in Mr. Bartram’s honor.
We are proud to offer you RHUBARB Tea! RHUBARB Tea features a botanical bounty of beets, carrots, lemons, petitgrain, cardamom, pure cane sugar, and of course, Bartram’s prize rhubarb. All organically certified and delicious. A confident 80 proof spirit that’s tangy but not too tangy–sweet, but not too sweet. Crisp and refreshing, but with a hint of spice. We guarantee there’s never been anything else like it…at least not since 1771. (Oh, and just to let you know, finding a source for organically certified rhubarb was quite a feat, so please savor every drop.)
Thomas Jefferson was a man of many achievements — a Founding Father, a speaker of five languages, third president of the United States and one heck of a horticulturist. (He reportedly obsessed more about his Monticello garden than about writing the Declaration of Independence).
Jefferson’s foremost botanical adviser was Bernard McMahon, a horticulturist who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1796 and published the country’s first seed list, which caught the eye of its botanically predisposed president. This lead to a longtime correspondence during which McMahon became Jefferson’s friend and gardening mentor.
After dispatching Lewis and Clark to explore the continent, it was McMahon, whom Jefferson tasked with growing and chronicling the 130 plants discovered on their expedition, resuling in the book “Flora Americae.” In a time when the Founding Fathers were consumed with distancing themselves from traditional English gardens, McMahon’s book was a godsend,giving men like Jefferson the resources to create stunning and productive gardens based on plants native to the New World.
In those days, it was customary for the gentry to make their own garden spirits. Each family’s was different, reflecting both their tastes and the output of the local soil. For our fourth Art in the Age libation, we thought it would be interesting to create a refreshing “garden gin” using some of the esculent botanicals chronicled by McMahon in his publications and grown by Jefferson at his Monticello gardens.
The result is sippable and fascinating, swirling with the grace and elegance of a post-colonial, pre-industrial America. With an intoxicating aroma and woodsy, herbaceous flavor, SAGE mixes deliciously in both savory and sweet cocktails. Instilled with organic American botanicals including thyme, rosemary, lavender, fennel and, of course sage, it calls to mind an earlier, more verdant world, when nature was more abundant and adventures more frequent. Please join us in our revival of craft cocktails from simpler times.