Many bars look to advertising to bring customers into their business. The new bar at Art in the Age, on the other hand, is in itself a sort of advertisement: a marketing tool for Art in the Age's revamped craft spirits line.
As I wander past the shelves of shiny barware and cocktail cookbooks, branded T-shirts and artisanal bitters, and find a seat at the copper-topped bar, I try to avoid contemplating whether that makes me — as a customer, with a pair of those eyeballs advertisers so crave — the product.
Of course, I can look past a great deal if there's a doughnut on the line. It comes, on this Tuesday in February, as part of a Fasnacht drink special: a Dutch Malt Rickey that's too bitter for my taste, but is served with a dense, sugar-crusted treat from Federal Donuts as a sidecar.
It probably won't appear on the menu again. The cocktail menu is a model of concision: just four drinks, short-lived specials designed to feature whatever's new.
It's an evolution for Art in the Age (AITA), which opened 10 years ago as both liquor brand and chic lifestyle boutique — one of those Brooklynish Old City shops where there's not all that much merchandise and I can't afford any of it, anyway.
But the store was reimagined after reformed Pennsylvania liquor laws meant that, for the first time, AITA had an avenue to selling their spirits on-site. Last November, they renovated, shifting the boutique's inventory toward barware, mixers, and spirits, and turning the rear half of the shop into a tasting room under one of the limited-distillery licenses that have fueled an explosion of new cocktail bars serving local spirits.
In this case, the distillery is North Philadelphia's New Liberty, which bottles the line of AITA spirits made at Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire. Both AITA and Tamworth are projects of Steven Grasse, an adman whose greatest hits include Hendrick's Gin and Sailor Jerry rum.
It's been nearly two decades since Grasse created a retail-as-advertising model; then, it was an ironic convenience-store-meets-performance-art concept called G-mart. "G-mart is a statement. You walk into the store and you question what's for sale," Grasse told an Inquirer reporter in 1999. (The article also quotes a colleague of Grasse's saying: "Old ladies come in here asking for milk. We say, 'Yeah, we sell it, but we're sold out now. Please come back tomorrow.' ")
Fortunately, AITA's tasting room is less prank, more passion project.
It reflects the transition of AITA from mass-produced spirits (the brand name, by the way, is a highbrow/despicable reference to the seminal 1936 essay about mass production's impact on art, by critic Walter Benjamin) to small-batch, seasonal infusions.
"It allows for a lot of recipe experimentation," said Kelly Curry, AITA store manager. "We were making these small-batch infusions already. But before the tasting room, we were never able to get them in the Pennsylvania market."
On my visit, the space — heavy on exposed brick and weathered wood — is calm, almost hushed. As the evening wears on, a handful of neighbors and out-of-town tourists filter in.
Tastings are available for those curious about, say, black-trumpet-mushroom blueberry cordial, or the newest AITA release, a chicory liqueur.
But most stick to the cocktail menu. The Figgin Fizz is pleasantly sweet and herbal, made with citrus rosemary syrup, seltzer, New Liberty Powderhorn Rye Vodka and AITA fig cordial. Their take on the Manhattan is made with blended whiskey and, in place of sweet vermouth, black-walnut-and-damson-plum cordial.
Curry also plans a busy calendar of events: book releases, mixology workshops.
"We have ideas," she said, "about it being a cocktail research lab."
Art in the Age Tasting Room & Home Bar Supply
116 N. Third St., Philadelphia, 215-922-2600, artintheage.com
When to go: Aim for Thursdays, when a weekly happy hour brings one-off specials like the recent Rye Eagles Rye green-tea toddy. It's open Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sunday, noon-6 p.m.
Bring: Your parents and anyone else who can't stand a noisy bar. Anyone who's into obscure craft spirits. The locavores in your life.
Order: Tastings are available, including in flights of three spirits for $10. Or, choose from the revolving cocktail list. For those who aren't into spirits, local beer and Ploughman Farms cider are also available.
Bathroom situation: Single-stall, clean and modern. A safe space in Old City.