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Thanksgiving might be the first example of American marketing spin, where families across the U.S. celebrate a cherished holiday molded out of a brief interlude in colonial conquest. American whiskey culture is also deep into myth making, with brands like Evan Williams and Elijah Craig named more for fables than actual biographies.
Enter Bird of Courage. A “roasted turkey flavored whiskey,” it’s the latest small-batch release from Tamworth Distilling, the New Hampshire distillery founded by Philadelphia marketing provocateur Steven Grasse.
Grasse, who in 1989 launched the Center City ad agency now called Quaker City Mercantile, has spent his recent years growing spirits-focused lifestyle brand Art in the Age.
From its start, Art in the Age bottled and marketed various liquors, but they were made by others. In 2017, Grasse set aside “contract distilling” to focus on Tamworth, which uses locally-sourced ingredients and a custom 250-gallon copper still.
With his transformation from swashbuckling advertising exec to booze spinner, Grasse has been credited for spotting the “artisanal trend” early. In 2015, Food & Wine magazine dubbed him the “Punk-Rock Prince of Small-Batch Spirits.”
For its part, Bird of Courage deserves more serious consideration than the gimmicky description might suggest.
Tamworth distiller Matt Power sought ingredients likely to have been served at the first Thanksgiving, which took place 400 years ago this year. That includes flint corn and kabocha squash and “fresh sage plucked from the distillery’s garden.” Tamworth even claims locally-sourced chestnuts as part of the recipe. The run comes from a single barrel of a 5-year-old Bottled in Bond whiskey proofed down to 92 proof with aromatic distillates, including apple water.
Translation from Power: “That’s aromatic water literally distilled out from a batch of dank applesauce,” he said. “Smelled so good.”
Distilled with a mash bill of 81% corn; 12% rye and 7% malted barley, just 500 bottles of the spirit were bottled at Kensington’s New Liberty Distillery in partnership with Art in the Age.
What’s it taste like? Many flavored whiskeys seem to be made for people who don’t like whiskey. Bird of Courage isn’t that.
From the pleasing nose onward, there’s a rich array of aroma, including hints of dried fruit. On first taste, I caught a passing hint of what is meant to be the turkey, farm-raised near the distillery — though there’s only so much flavor that comes through at this high a proof. The “roasted turkey” label seems to be more marketing than a defining characteristic. The taste I found most present was cranberry, still subtle but tangy and autumnal.
There could be multiple bonuses for swapping out the candied yams and bringing Bird of Courage to this year’s holiday feast instead. Your grandmother might be amused by the cornucopia of supposed ingredients; your young nephew would be entertained by the playful faux-turkey feather that adorns the bottle, and your whiskey-loving aunt will love the serious burn.
That the bottle can make for both good conversation and good drink is important, because it isn’t cheap.
Like others in Tamworth’s portfolio of limited-release whiskeys, Bird of Courage is priced for its small-scale and organic-approach: $65 for a 200-mL bottle, more than triple the price of larger-run local whiskeys.
“The new luxury is knowing where the stuff comes from and knowing that the person who made it got paid,” Grasse said in 2010 at the beginning of his spirits journey. “That is the new luxury. Not the fancy packaging, or the glam, but the ethics of it, the sustainability and goodness of it.”
Grasse is known for this kind of declaration. He has been called ill-tempered and manipulative — and a mad wizard with a softer, intellectual side. These days, he might be called problematic. A former employee of his told me Grasse would often say “Let the work speak for itself.” Today, society is reckoning with the question of whether we can really separate art from artist.
Bird of Courage, a genuinely high quality whiskey created by a serial mythmaker with a complicated reputation, is finely emblematic of this moment in time.
This is the 400th anniversary of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, a seminal harvest feast held by a fledgling colony of English zealots who had been saved by diplomatic members of the disease-ravaged Wampanoag tribe. Americans are attempting to correct the Thanksgiving myth while maintaining the culture and tradition many cherish.