Charleston's beverage craftsmen dig for flavor and the results taste mighty fine 

Tuber Or Not Tuber

Jonathan Boncek

Brandon Wogamon of Cannonborough Beverage Co. makes root beer for Parlor Deluxe

Here's some free trivia: All tubers — like potatoes — are root plants, but not all root plants are tubers. If you bring this up at a cocktail party, however, you'll instantly be the most boring guy there. So keep it tuber yourself.

Scott McConnell of James Island's Tradesman Brewing Company knows something about tubers. He got tired of requests to make a pumpkin beer. Pumpkin-spiced {insert name here} is so overdone that it prompts disgusted groans from collective kitchen staffs everywhere. "When most people sip pumpkin beers, what they're really tasting is all of the spices and sugar that typically flavor things like pumpkin pie," says Sara Gayle McConnell, Scott's wife, who along with her husband and partner Chris Winn, own and operate the brewery. "No offense to pumpkins, but by itself, the gourd isn't remarkably tasty. It's kind of flat, squashy, and watery."

click to enlarge Tradesman's Scott McConnell stirs mashed sweet potato into his Sweet Potato Pie beer - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Tradesman's Scott McConnell stirs mashed sweet potato into his Sweet Potato Pie beer

So Scott, who recently made a small batch of chicken and waffles beer just to prove he could do it, decided to dig deeper — root-level deeper — and made Tradesman's Sweet Potato Pie beer to appease and rehabilitate the pumpkin-obsessed.

Scott roasts 40 pounds of potatoes and uses the mashed potatoes in the base. In addition to toasty malts like Chocolate and Caramel 120, he adds maple syrup to the brewing process to further develop and harmonize the sweet potato flavor. The sugar in the potatoes caramelizes, lending another element of heady sweetness to the brew. Unlike pumpkin beers, which tend to be made as amber ales, Tradesman opts for a brown beer. The mellow, nutty brew is a perfect canvas for the flavors of roasted potato and spices, like clove and nutmeg. This allows these aspects to be on the forefront without blocking the beer's other tasting notes.

Over at High Wire Distilling Company, Scott Blackwell's making magic with some lesser-known roots. His Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin, made with crushed juniper berries and fresh lemon and orange peel, owes its baseline flavor to licorice and angelica roots.

"We use roots in our spirits for several reasons," says Blackwell. "They act as a fixative, lend an underlying base to whatever we're developing, and add some bitterness and complexity to the drink." In this instance, the kind of fixative he's talking about isn't a tangible glue holding the drink together physically; rather it is a metaphysical type of binder that stabilizes the flavors in the beverage. "It's like a common denominator," says Blackwell. "It's the flavor that brings all the other flavors into harmony, so that a taste of the drink makes sense in your mouth."

The roots contain an essential oil that has a slight licorice note and are often used to flavor Benedictine, Chartreuse, and vermouth. A little angelica goes a long way, and it's a phenomenal platform on which to build up other flavors. For Blackwell's purposes, the rich, earthy undertone counterbalances the oranges and lemons he uses in the gin.

Many  local restaurants serve High Wire's amaro, including Indaco which uses it in the Nicotine + Caffeine = Protein cocktail - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Many local restaurants serve High Wire's amaro, including Indaco which uses it in the Nicotine + Caffeine = Protein cocktail

Licorice root plays a similar role here. "If you want in-your-face licorice taste, you're going to use anise to flavor whatever you're making," says Blackwell. "The root is more woody than earthy and tastes — well, rootier than what we think of as licorice. The licorice notes are there in the background, but the root itself is heavier, more complex, and gives our gin a rich mouthfeel. It has a lot of bottom to it."

High Wire also makes Southern Amaro Liqueur using licorice and gentian root. A Southern expression of the Italian classic, High Wire's amaro also contains Charleston black tea, yaupon holly, Dancy tangerine, and mint. Again, the roots serve the role of base-giving, tying together a group of flavorfully opposite ingredients that might otherwise look like a school cafeteria dare. The gentian root adds clean sharpness and bitterness — it is, in fact, the main ingredient in most bitters. "The roots are like the stock in the soup. Hidden but present," Blackwell says. "You'd surely miss them if they weren't there."

The roots are introduced to the two spirits in very different ways. For the gin, High Wire puts chopped licorice and whole angelica roots into a large, handmade tea bag, then drops the bag into high-proof grain alcohol. They let it sit for 24 hours or so, then remove the bag and distill the alcohol. The flavors come through in the distillate. With amaro, they bag each botanical separately, pulling out the bags at different times according to their flavoring properties. The whole process takes about eight to 10 weeks. For the amaro, the liquor isn't distilled but is proofed by adding water and sugar — it then becomes a liqueur.

While Blackwell tries hard to use mostly local ingredients in his products, the roots aren't easy to come by. While turmeric and ginger need relatively little time to grow and can be found locally, Blackwell says roots like licorice and gentian need about three to five years to mature enough to take on the depth they're prized for. And harvesting roots is sort of thankless — once you've dug up your product, that's all she wrote; it isn't as if the rootless plant can now regenerate itself. So each time you grow plants for their roots, you're starting over from scratch. Most of the roots High Wire uses come from the Pacific Northwest, where there is a focused attempt at growing and harvesting them.

Brandon Wogamon of Cannonborough Beverage Co. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Brandon Wogamon of Cannonborough Beverage Co.

Unlike McConnell or Blackwell, Mick Matricciano, Brandon Wogamon, and Matt Fendley, co-founders of The Cannonborough Beverage Company, decided they wanted to take craft drinks in a less boozy direction. They partnered with local farms to make high quality, culinary-minded, nonalcoholic sodas.

The trio worked in some of Charleston's finest bars and restaurants — The Gin Joint, FIG, and The Belmont among them — and have been friends since childhood. They started out selling glasses of their sodas at farmers markets in 2012, but about two years ago, they began selling kegs to local restaurants — their first client being the illustrious Edmund's Oast. Last summer, when Warehouse owners James Groetzinger and Joey Rinaldi's soda counter Parlor Deluxe opened, they asked the Cannonborough crew to do something special for them — a hand-crafted root beer. The guys were already making and successfully selling a ginger beer consisting of cold-pressed ginger and lime juices, plus fresh vanilla, cloves, sugar, and water. The root beer, however was not so easy to create. Though Native Americans had been making sassafras root drinks well before the arrival of Europeans in North America, it wasn't until 1886 that pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires successfully marketed a commercial brand of root beer. Nowadays, there is root beer made in every single U.S. state, but most of it has almost zero resemblance to the classic concoction. "It's like the difference between giving someone a can of SpaghettiOs and a really authentic plate of spaghetti and meatballs," says Matricciano. "The two are almost alien to each other." The Cannonborough crew wanted to open eyes and free palates with their version of root beer.

So, they found as many 200-year-old recipes they could and made all of them. And they all tasted terrible. They were too rooty, thick, and dank — not something our taste buds are accustomed to these days. But the trio found one that they could work with and began tweaking it — sweetening it, balancing out the ingredients, and adding new things until they'd achieved a mellower version that was still a thousand times more complex than any can of Barq's.

Back in the 1960s, sassafras root, which was traditionally used to give root beer its unusual taste, was declared to be a carcinogen. In response, most root beer makers simply boosted the amount of wintergreen in their drinks, as both plants have some similar menthol-like properties. But the substitution wasn't a perfect one, and root beer was never the same. After doing lots of research, the Cannonborough guys discovered that they could use something called spikenard root to more closely mirror the bitter, resiny, minty properties in sassafras. So spikenard — in conjunction with sarsaparilla root, birch bark, and aromatics like nutmeg, juniper berries, and fresh mint — creates a root drink that's rather extraordinary.

"On the front end, you taste all the classic elements you find in a root beer," says Matricciano, "but then at the end of the swallow, all the other cool elements come into play, and you're thinking, 'Oh! I don't know what that is. But I want another sip.'" Though the root beer is only available at Parlor Deluxe right now, the company will begin selling it on a larger scale soon. Already, their other sodas and ginger beer are on tap at many area restaurants, and after they unveiled shelf-stable bottles of their product last month, they've been picked up by many specialty stores and are even at Whole Foods.

So the next time you're thirsty for something with a little smack, punch, or zing, don't forget your roots. Go for one of Charleston's tastiest rhizome-inclined drinks.


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