Early Americans were extremely inventive when it came to their booze: They made it out of dandelions, out of quince, and even out of wood (though that last one, it turned out, was poisonous).
Today, despite the hazards, that spirit of ingenuity lives on in offices tucked above the 13th Street bar scene in Center City. There, Steven Grasse and his team at Quaker City Mercantile are, with more authority than you might care to believe, telling you what it is you want to drink after work.
Grasse developed brands such as Sailor Jerry rum and Hendrick's Gin, and is an owner of Narragansett beer and of Art in the Age, the store and spirits collection. And he has a slew of new products hitting Philadelphia this fall: QC Malt, a line of hard soda made with Diageo, the world's largest liquor conglomerate; Lo-Fi Aperitifs, a line of vermouth and amaro made with wine giant Gallo; and Sweet Lips, a cherry-infused liqueur made with rye whiskey and apple brandy at Grasse's own Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire.
The latter, based on Martha Washington's recipe for cherry bounce, is an accompaniment to Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History, a new manual of Revolutionary-era tippling. The book, filled with recipes, historical anecdotes, and trivia, was written by Grasse and illustrated by the Rev. Michael Alan, who also helped develop - and illustrated labels for - Art in the Age's Root, Snap, Rhubarb Tea, and Sage spirits.
It includes updates of 17th- and 18th-century recipes you'll want to try, like cucumber shrub - a delicate, vinegar-spiked syrup that's great in sparkling water and better with gin - and others you may not, like cock ale, a hearty colonial-era beer cocktail made with chicken-infused sherry.
For Grasse, 52, this history is a constant source of inspiration.
"Everyone else is chasing what's next," he said. "We're chasing what came before."
He has been on that alcoholic quest for more than a decade. Before getting into spirits, he was an adman, head of the agency Gyro Worldwide. Its biggest client was tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds.
"We were the big, bad tobacco company, so no other companies would hire us," Grasse said.
So, in the agency's spare time, they got creative. They ran a novelty store, G-mart, in Old City. They tried filmmaking. "We made [a series of films called] Bikini Bandits, which might be some of the worst films ever made. It was a bunch of girls with guns robbing convenience stores." And they bought the archive of Norman Collins, the tattoo artist known as Sailor Jerry, and started a T-shirt company based on his designs.
An accompanying rum line, Grasse thought, might help sell shirts. But the rum itself took off, becoming the fastest-growing rum brand in the world.
"When we sold it, we said, 'Holy s-, we just made more money on this than on anything we've ever done!' So we said, 'Let's stop doing advertising and be a spirits company.' "
Grasse and his team now consult with brands like Guinness, Miller High Life, and Pilsner Urquell. They created the fast-growing Hendrick's Gin brand for distiller William Grant & Sons.
And they develop their own Art in the Age branded products for Grasse's craft distillery in New Hampshire, on a site selected for water quality. Those, including seasonal flavored vodka in flavors like beet and chicory, are designed as smaller-distribution niche products, but they are available in all 50 states.
His philosophy is simple. "It takes four things to make a brand work: Great packaging, great liquid, great consistency - and a great story."
It's the storytelling part that interests Grasse, and that aligns with his fascination with colonial-era history.
For instance, Root, the first brand his team developed for Art in the Age, was inspired by alcoholic root tea brewed by Pennsylvania settlers and the nonalcoholic root beer marketed by Philadelphia pharmacist and temperance activist Charles Hires at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876.
So when publisher Abrams invited him to write a book, Grasse already knew what to write.
The hard work, then, was updating colonial-era recipes to suit the modern bartender.
That fell to Alan, who was ordained online to officiate a wedding and kept the title. A dedicated amateur mixologist, he already had a collection of antique cookbooks on which to draw.
"I find those old recipes so appealing because they're so simple and weird, and they use spices that have gone to the wayside," he said. "What's cool about the recipes in the book is there are a lot of make-your-own syrups, make-your-own bitters, and make-your-own shrubs. We want to show people they can make these things themselves."
Some updates are liberally adapted (the cock ale ends up as a warm beer punch, mixed with chicken stock, sherry, and spices), while others, like the orange bitters, are made more or less as they were a century ago.
Many, like Martha Washington's cherry bounce, are long-term projects designed to yield whole bottles of infused spirits.
There are also a number of Prohibition-era drinks, like fruit shrubs, that are easy and cheap to make.
Grasse hopes the book will inspire both professional and home bartenders to experiment.
Last week, at Quaker City's offices, Grasse and Alan were debating what to serve at a book-launch event. The Free Library was sending over wine, Grasse said. "We need to make sangria or something. Otherwise, it'll be like, 'I'll have a Chardonnay.' No! You won't!"
The research has already sparked Grasse's imagination: Narragansett will offer a seasonal spruce ale this fall to sip while reading the book.
And his new QC Malt hard sodas are likewise historically inclined: the flavors on offer are Lemon Shrub, and a birch-beer-inspired Old Dutch.
To Grasse, literature and alcohol are natural companions. Tamworth also produced a tamarind cordial to go with Andrea Wulf's 2015 book, The Invention of Nature.
"The idea of putting out liquid accompaniments to literature is a new thing we're pioneering," he said. "Global spirits aren't very much different from buying a Twinkie. They're industrialized ethanol with artificial ingredients. Now, people are interested in knowing where their food comes from and knowing what it is they're consuming."
2 ounces Cherry Bounce (see recipe)
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
Dash of orange bitters
1 strip orange peel for garnish
1. In a cocktail shaker full of ice, combine all ingredients except for orange peel. Shake until chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
2. Wipe the rim of the glass with the orange peel, and garnish.
- From Colonial Spirits by Steven GrasseEndText
Makes 1 quart
1 750 ml bottle whiskey or bourbon
1 cup sugar
1 pound sour cherries, stemmed and pitted
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1. In a 1-quart jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine 11/2 cups of the whiskey and the sugar. Seal the jar and shake to dissolve the sugar.
2. Add the cherries, vanilla bean and seeds, and the remaining whiskey to the jar and seal again. Shake to combine and store in a cool, dark place for 4 to 6 weeks, or up to six months.
3. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth or coffee filters into a clean container. Press on solids to extract as much liquid as possible, then discard them.
4. Store in a tightly sealed jar or bottle and use within two months.
- From Colonial Spirits by Steven GrasseEndText
Makes 1 pint
1 cup fruit, such as berries, cucumber, peach, or lemon, chopped
1 cup sugar
About 1 cup white vinegar
1. Mix fruit and sugar, cover and refrigerate 24 to 48 hours
2. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined sieve, reserving the syrup and any undissolved sugar that may still be in the container. Reserve solids for another use.
3. To the syrup, add an equal amount of vinegar, and one pinch of salt per serving, and stir to combine and dissolve any remaining sugar.
4. Transfer the shrub to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for two to three weeks.
5. Use in your favorite cocktail, or add about two ounces of the shrub per cup of sparkling water for a refreshing shrub cooler.