Spirit guide: Steven Grasse tells why Art in the Age wares are the holiday gift for cocktail connoisseurs

Our conversation was remote, but you could almost feel the smile on Steven Grasse’s face when he referred to his company, Art in the Age, as the “foremost expert in the alcohol game.”

Grasse, whose marketing arm, Quaker City Mercantile, works with some of the biggest alcohol companies in the world, pumps much of that revenue back into the Old City home bar and tasting room supply, not to mention a multi-acre farm and distillery in New Hampshire. It wasn’t that long ago Art in the Age used to source ingredients from Los Angeles.

Today, everything selected to make the next great cordial or flavor for a beer or spirit is created in two test kitchens the company owns and operates, one in Philly and one in New Hampshire, complete with an on-staff botanist, biochemist and, of course, master distiller.

“We are doing things that no one else is doing, and the fact that people are willing to pay for it is a plus because we would do it anyway,” said Grasse. “Again, it’s not necessarily always the most cost-efficient way to run a distillery. But the other way would be boring for us. It’s what sets us apart and able to walk into the biggest distilleries in the world and say, ‘I know more about this than you do.’”

We at PW believe all of that knowledge should aid your decision for what to get the alcohol aficionado in your life, so we caught up with Grasse to chat all things beer, wine and spirits and ask why a stop into Art in the Age makes so much damn sense this holiday season.

So what are Quaker City Mercantile and Art in the Age?

We work with all the big spirit companies. We work with everyone from Guinness, with William, Grant & Sons who make Hendricks, we’ve worked with the Czech Ministry of Beer to the East African Brewing Company. We work all over the world and are probably the best known consultants in the entire spirits industry.

So QCM is essentially the main job in order to do the sexy side hustle, Art in the Age?

I mean yeah, in some ways it is. But it’s more than just a passion project. It’s about proof of concept. The store itself is also retail testing for us, because again, to my knowledge, we are the only shop like ours that has its own retail concept. We have our place in New Hampshire and our store here [in Old City], and we learn so much about how people are drinking, what they’re buying, what they’re staying away from and it’s all in real time. It’s invaluable information that serves both endeavors.

What’s been one change that has helped your business grow in the past few years?

Pennsylvania state liquor laws changed in a dramatic way. That now allows Pennsylvania to be one of the best states in the country to be in the craft distilling business. What they did was that now, craft distillers can have up to five satellite licenses to sell beer but also serve cocktails. So we took the opportunity to develop a partnership with New Liberty Distillery in Kensington, so we are able to bring our spirits up to New Hampshire, bottle them and sell them in our own store. 

How much is the distillery in New Hampshire a game changer?

The interesting thing in New Hampshire is that we do liquid development for all the big brands, but what we’re really focused on in New Hampshire is pushing the boundaries and the limits of what’s possible. We’ve had a full-time biochemist on our team along with our master distiller and botanist. They are actually doing some groundbreaking work in the field right now and making all kinds of weird stuff up there that we are calling ‘wilderness to table.’ For instance, our blueberry mushroom cordial is made from wild mushrooms and blueberries. Art in the Age has always been about flavor and the discovery of that flavor.

How does the model in which you go about creating cordials go into the price? Because this stuff is not cheap.

What we’ve done now is to the extreme, but it speaks to how much we stand by our products. We’re out there literally picking mushrooms and blueberries and we are distilling them on a very small scale. That’s why a 375ml bottle of our cordial sells for $50, because it is painstakingly made. It’s ridiculously handcrafted. So much so, that we should put it on the label.

Authentic bourbon–no longer just a Tennessee and Kentucky thing?

If anyone knows anything about whiskey, then they know the history of whiskey started out in Pennsylvania. We were making whiskey 150 years before anyone even thought to cross the Appalachians. I think we make great rye and I think we make great bourbon. Take a bourbon like New Liberty’s Bloody Butcher Bourbon, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. I wouldn’t say bourbon is easy, but if you have good grain and halfway know what you’re doing you’ll make a decent bourbon.

What’s your take on scene? It seems like everywhere you go in Philadelphia there’s a new craft brewery or distillery popping up.

It’s great for the scene and like I said, the new laws in Pennsylvania have made it possible to return Philly to the boomtown it was for alcohol pre-Prohibition. But just because all of these places are popping up doesn’t mean that they’re good. I’ve always said that “craft” is just another word for amateur. My other saying is “these days craft breweries are like assholes; everyone’s got one and most of what comes out of them tastes like shit.” So just because it’s craft doesn’t make it good and don’t make me pay top dollar for your learning curve. Get it right, stand by it and then charge what it’s worth.

That’s some profound shit. Suggestions off that?

For the distiller, make sure you know what you’re doing. And for the customer? Buyer beware.

Art in the Age | 116 N. 3rd St. artintheage.com


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    Kerith Gabriel is the former editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. As a routine contributor, journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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