The Old City-based outfit doesn't just mix flavors—it mixes old-fashioned authenticity with 21st-century product savvy.
The parsnip liquor surprises me: It tastes sweet and earthy, like brown sugar, even as it coats your tongue with a starchy rootiness that recalls roasted vegetables. Somehow, the flavor is simultaneously familiar and alien.
Melkon Khosrovian watches me taste it; around him stand rows of amber bottles of distilled liquid, each with a paper tag tied to its neck. We’re walking through Greenbar Distillery, Khosrovian’s organic liquor facility in Los Angeles, and reading the bottles makes me feel like I’ve stumbled into some wizard’s cabinet: “Carrot. 80 proof.” “Elderflower. 90 proof.” “Artichoke Heart. 80 proof.” These bottles are both the products and tools of his trade.
Greenbar works with Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction—a brand of the Philadelphia-based Quaker City Mercantile company that hawks carefully designed artsy wares ranging from books to soaps—to create Art in the Age’s signature product: their unique, historically-inspired alcoholic spirits. Four years ago, Art in the Age debuted the line with Root, an organic liqueur re-creating an 18th-century root beer formula but with a powerful, 80-proof kick. Since then, they’ve gone on to craft three more retro liqueurs: Snap, Rhubarb Tea and Sage.
There’s a fifth spirit on the way, due early next year, and for the moment, it’s still top secret. The distilled parsnip is the only element of the new brew Khosrovian feels comfortable revealing, and he’s only showing it to me now because he’s so delighted that it solved a tricky flavor problem in his formulations. He’s giddy when he pours it, amused that it works so well himself.
“Smell how aromatic it is,” he urges. “We’ve all had parsnips, but when we distilled it, it was amazing!” His enthusiasm is infectious, and I’m already smiling when I put the golden liquor to my lips.
As the names suggest, Art in the Age’s spirits manage to taste like things you remember from your childhood—ginger snaps, root beer, rhubarb pie—even as they taste like nothing you’ve ever had before. Maybe that’s not surprising, as Khosrovian’s team is using the latest technology to reinvent recipes that are hundreds of years old. That simultaneous overlap of the old and new isn’t limited to the company’s liquor, either; it’s been present in all my experiences with Art in the Age.
Indeed, talk with Quaker City Mercantile’s founder, branding guru Steven Grasse, long enough, and you’ll end up discussing how important the tenets of old-fashioned family farming are to running a business in the 21st century. “People don’t know who they are and where they’re from,” he says. His own family roots prompted the way his company approaches crafting its liquor: “These recipes are important to me because my family has been in Philadelphia since 1702. My mom’s family has been in New Hampshire since the 1600s. If you have a connection to your history, you have a connection to land.”
Steven has been in New Hampshire this summer, building a new distillery of his own that’ll open next spring. “We’re going to be doing some cold distilling,” he says, rather than using traditional boiling methods. “It’ll be freaky.” He’s trying to nestle this new, state-of-the-art test kitchen—he calls it his botanical laboratory—into the historic town of Tamworth with as little fuss as possible. “We bought the general store in town, and we bought the inn,” he says, “and we’re putting the distillery behind the inn. I’ve learned a lot about fire codes and historical preservation.”
(Why set up the new facility in New Hampshire, not Philadelphia, where Quaker City Mercantile is based? “I couldn’t build this in Pennsylvania,” Grasse says, “because of all the fracking. You need good water to make good spirits.”)
Whether Grasse actually needs a test kitchen at all might be a subject for debate, considering the humble origins of Art in the Age’s first four spirits. “It usually happens with me sitting at Mom’s dinner table,” he admits, “and saying ‘Mom, where did this rhubarb tea recipe come from?’ And then we go from there.”
The process has three stages. First, Grasse gets inspired by something; if it’s not a family recipe, it might be, for instance, the sage plants Lewis and Clark documented on their travels. Grasse takes this idea to the Rev. Michael Alan, who does the illustrations for the Art in the Age labels, and has worked with Grasse since the brand’s beginning. The two of them work out a non-alcoholic drink based on a historical recipe, tempering it for a modern palate. When they’re happy with the taste, they send it to Khosrovian at Greenbar, who creates the alcoholic version that ends up in stores.
“I take a month to experiment,” Khosrovian says. “We usually make three different versions of it, trying to nail down what this thing is supposed to be.”
While blending, say, artichoke heart with roasted dandelion root extract might sound avant-garde—or self-consciously hip—the spirits-maker says it really isn’t: “We’re doing things that were done centuries ago, by doctors for medicine.” Still, his job interpreting Grasse and Alan’s concoction is harder than it sounds. Not every flavor distills properly, for example. Sassafras is a carcinogen, but you can mimic the taste with orange and wintergreen and few other choice ingredients. Then there’s the problem of cucumber, which breaks down after about two months, making it useless as an ingredient for a product that’s designed to be shipped and sit on shelves. “That was painful,” Khosrovian says, shaking his head. “We had this beautiful cucumber-citrus spirit...” He shrugs his shoulders.
Once the Greenbar team have three versions they like, they send them back to Philadelphia. “We don’t do any focus groups,” Grasse says, “just the people who immediately work on Art in the Age—we all get around the table with the three different versions that Melkon sends. And then we just say, ‘Number Two. That’s the one.’”
“We use real ingredients, which is a pain in the butt,” Khosrovian says. “We have to process them, and they are always different.“ The process isn’t unlike letting tea steep: Greenbar lets all the ingredients for a particular spirit distill in the same vat, until the batch is ready. What “ready” means changes with each batch, though, so the spirit has to be sampled regularly.
As we walk through the distillery, Khosrovian draws some Root that isn’t quite ready, so I can taste it along with some that’s set to be bottled. The favors are stronger in the early batch, but they’re noisy, discordant. Unlike the fully mature Root, there’s no harmony in the taste. All the flavor is there, but it’s nowhere near as nice to drink.
“We’re trying to be respectful of the ingredients,” Khosrovian says. “That the drink will still taste great the tenth time, the hundredth time, the thousandth time.”
All this constant testing and development—it’s what sets Art in the Age spirits, with their blends of so many flavors, apart from most other alcohols on the shelf. “Most micro-distillers are obsessed with making standards,” Grasse says: “’This is whiskey. This is gin.’ But I don’t know what a perfect whiskey tastes like—I just know what I like. I’m just going to make what I like, and I hope you like it too; there’s a good story behind it.”
Khosrovian’s coming from much the same headspace, though he took a different route to get there. “We make liquor because we didn’t like what we were drinking,” he says. “I am from the former Soviet Union, and for us, a ‘cocktail’ was ice.” He uses organic ingredients and a slow steeping process, he says, less because of any grand ecological principles than because it tastes better that way. “Alcohol is a luxury,” he says. “This process, these ingredients—they are the best thing we can do for that.”
Philly Weekly's Fall Guide 2015