Steven Grasse is a maverick. A Marketing Mad Man of the Modern Age. He's an entrepreneur, artist, ad guy, author and all-around cool dude who happens to operate a successful business in Philly, for which residents should be thankful. His shop and gallery space Art in the Age of Mechanical Production in Olde City promotes local culture and sustainable products, which include his well-known line of spirits ROOT, SNAP & RHUBY marketed under his PR Agency Quaker City Mercantile. It seems whatever he touches turns a golden hue, which doesn't just happen by some stroke of luck. I'd call it strokes of genius really. Foresight. Creative edge. He purchased the intellectual property rights to the estate of WWII-era tattoo artist Norman Collins for a mere $20,000 and turned it into a multi-million dollar operation under the name "Sailor Jerry." A clothing line and a series of products were developed around the style and tattoo imagery of the man, including a successfully distributed rum. The power of the label pushed Grasse to brand Hendrick's Gin, the premium spirit that is poured from a now iconically-shaped and designed bottle that feels more late 1800s than today. Take a look at a bottle of ROOT and you'll notice the classic curves and appeal. William Grant & Sons, the Scottish distiller that produced the rum for Grasse as well as Hendrick's floral gin, bought the Sailor Jerry brand in 2008, retained Grasse as its ad agent, and made him a treasure chest of bullion, all of which brings us to today.
This past Wednesday I was invited to the Preview Party for Spodee Wine, whose tagline is "Wine with a Kick" and whose bottle reveals a mule with its hind legs high in the air. Imagery tells a story. This says it all. It's part of that unconventional approach for which Grasse is known. Spodee is cursively written on old-time milk bottles and contained in wooden crates one would expect to be delivered on a doorstep in the '50s. Mix modern marketing with old-fashioned concepts. It's another indication of Grasse's "grass-roots" campaign layered with color and Rock-N-Roll undertones. So what is Spodee exactly? It's a 36-proof spirit whose name is from a Depression-era "hooch" that was mixed with fortified wine, herbs, spices and moonshine and poured into containers that were readily available at the time. Hence, the re-invented milk bottle. Hooch is a derivation of "Hoochino," which was an Alaskan tribe that made a distilled liquor of the same name in the late 1800s that became a favorite of gold rush miners. So you see, there's that mix of history again. And GOLD. I am sensing foreshadow here. Of Success.
The launch party, held at the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym in Fishtown, mixed Southern style with farmhouse charm and Prohibition-era cocktail ingenuity. A bluegrass band called Sour Mash (a befitting name for cheap whiskey) played tunes one would expect on a porch in the middle of Appalachia, transporting one to a setting and time when moonshine shone brightly (and still does!). Mark Coates, the talented chef behind the now-closed Italian Market Bebe's, brought along his roaming BBQ vehicle The Smoke Truck, which infused each offering with Spodee, including braised pork cheeks, applewood smoked chicken drumsticks, and killer mole-rubbed angus short rib sliders sporting Spodee BBQ sauce. Rival Bros. Coffee conjured up a Spodee Con Leche, featuring its namesake coffee brew served cold with sweetened condensed milk and Spodee. My Jello Americans playfully blended gelatin with alcohol in jello shots along with dark chocolates encasing liquid Spodee centers. Little Baby's Ice Cream concocted a Red Velvet Spodee Chocolate Swirl that cooled things off. It was clear that Spodee could enhance both food and sweets.
At the center of it all, though, was the bar, where Spodee really sparkles. On its own, Spodee on the rocks is syrupy and sweet, with chocolate undertones, slightly reminiscent of port wine, Kahlua and a hint of Frangelico. It can be drunk post-meal as a dessert-ending digestif, but its real draw is as a centerpiece in cocktails. Its versatility was expressed through fun recipes like the Southern Storm, an homage to the Dark 'N' Stormy, which blended Spodee with Sailor Jerry rum, ginger beer and lime juice. The Spodee & Sody, offered to guests as they entered the vast space, showed off equal parts of the hooch and cola, similar to a Rum and Coke but sweeter. The idea is that the product, marketed as a spirit from White Mule Farms, shines when it plays with others in the glass. Pour a bourbon over ice, then add some Spodee, a dash of bitters perhaps. Stir. It's that easy. Make up your own recipes or follow those provided on the neck of the bottle. Be adventurous. It's a message Steven Grasse has been following and passing along his whole career. After all, one doesn't arrive at this spot in life without kickin' things around a bit.
Spodee is now available in PA and NJ, at liquor stores and restaurants. It's worth seeking out. Take a Walk on the Wild Side.