The Reluctant Root Beer Float
- Stratus Rooftop Lounge
437 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Root beer, as we know it, was invented by Philadelphia Pharmacist Charles Hires, who introduced his fizzy herbal concoction at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, marketing it as a temperance movement-approved alternative to the “small beers” commonly imbibed at the time. Philadelphia’s drinks scene has evolved quite a bit since then, but the City of Brotherly love still has a deep affection for the sweet, sassafras- and birch-based soda.
Late last year, the StarChefs.com team drank Keith Garabedian’s house-made root beer at Hot Diggity, ate maple-root beer foam on Peter Scarola’s Rising Stars pastry, pined for Sara May’s root beer float at Franklin Fountain, and sipped (decidedly anti-temperance) cocktails made with Art in the Age’s ROOT all over the city. One such cocktail was Mixologist Bess Gulliver’s boozy flip, In General Terms, made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon juice, ROOT, honey syrup, and an egg white—in other words, an adult root beer float.
Art in the Age ROOT, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Lemon Juice, Honey Syrup, and Egg White
“Hard root beer floats didn’t seem interesting to me,” says Gulliver, but the herbal qualities of the ROOT (distilled with birch bark, black tea, cane sugar, sassafras, citrus, allspice, anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom) made it a fun flavor path to follow.
After moving from New York City’s Lani Kai to Philadephia’s Stratus Rooftop Lounge and Red Owl Tavern, Gulliver began experimenting with ROOT. “It’s a really interesting product that’s a challenge to work with—it’s so complex,” says Gulliver, who after lots of trial and error, landed on a bourbon-anchored flip with plenty of sass. “The bourbon creates a good base platform to bring out complexities in the liqueur without overpowering it,” she says.
And while she isn’t interested in resurrecting the float for the over 21 set, the flip format and egg white give the drink a beautiful, creamy mouthfeel that is undeniably reminiscent of the soda fountain standard. “The egg white texture really smoothes out the drink and brings out nice, rounder flavors,” she says. The egg also helps tame the relatively high-alcohol ROOT (70 proof) and Buffalo trace (90 proof) without muffling the spices of either spirit.
Finally, a healthy pour of lemon juice keeps the drink's sweetness in check. “It’s about those flavor bases and herbal aspects of the root beer without trying to be dessert-y or too sweet,” says Gulliver.
As Philadelphia’s cocktail culture continues to broaden, it’s drinks like In General Terms that will help introduce drinkers to bourbon cocktails and the whole flip genre—thanks to familiar, approachable flavors like root beer. “With this drink, you can have a conversation with a guest—assuming they don’t think an egg white is going to kill them,” says Gulliver. “Why are you drinking a white Russian when you can have this?”