Taste Test: Sarsaparilla

[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]

Smilax regelii. Or as it's more commonly known, sarsaparilla. Europeans thought it healed syphilis, and others have claimed it's a cure for herpes and gonorrhea. Assertions of STD-removal aside, sarsaparilla makes for one mighty fine beverage (just ask The Stranger). After distilling the compounds in the root of the plant and mixing them with sugar water, mid-nineteenth century chemists stumbled upon what would ultimately become the father of root beer.

While root beer's popularity soared throughout the twentieth century, sarsaparilla curiously faded into the background. But it shares many flavors with its more widely known descendant: both have hints of licorice, wintergreen, and a pleasant medicinal quality.

These days only a handful of brands are available on the market. We were able to find six different sarsaparillas from Galco, but if we left out your regional favorite, let us know about it in the comments below.


Sarsaparillas We Tried

AJ Stephans
Baron's Boothill
Big Ben's
Jackson Hole
Manhattan Special
Sioux City

Each sarsaparilla was sampled in a blind taste test and judged on the following criteria:

The Criteria

  • Carbonation: No one likes flat soda, but too much fizz can sting the mouth and mask flavors. In addition to the levels of initial carbonation, we also looked at how quickly these sodas lost their bubbly effervescence once emancipated from their respective bottles.
  • Sweetness: This is soda, so there should be some sweetness, but it shouldn't bludgeon you over the head with sugar. Does the sweetness taste natural, leaving your mouth feeling crisp and clean, or does it feel like it's sticking to your gums and rotting your teeth to the nubs with syrup? The balance between sugar and bitterness of the sarsaparilla root should be even.
  • Overall sarsaparilla flavor: Chances are, if you like root beer, you're gonna like sarsaparilla. Sarsaparilla has a distinct medicinal bite with notes of vanilla, caramel, wintergreen, and licorice. We looked at how assertive these flavors made themselves known on the palate and how well they combined to make a balanced, well-rounded soda.

After a rigorous round of tasting and re-tasting, we picked our favorites and ranked all six. Check out the results and our impressions of each bottle in the slideshow!

The Rankings

6. Jackson Hole
5. Baron's Boothill
4. Manhattan Special
3. Big Ben's
2. AJ Stephans

And the Winner Is...Sioux City

20110330-145083-sioux-city-sarsaparilla-label-small.jpgThis wasn't a surprising outcome. Sioux City is far and away the most well-known and easily found sarsaparilla in the United States. It also happens to be the best.

More than any of the other sarsaparillas we tried, Sioux City's maintained a balance of bold flavors that made for one smooth-drinking soda. Tasters picked up on lots of caramel, vanilla, and wintergreen overtones. Unlike some of its competitors, it stayed fizzy well after being poured into the tasting cups.

This is the most likely one sarsaparilla you'll find in your area, and we highly suggest picking up a bottle today if you've never known the pleasures of a good, full-bodied sarsaparilla. We can't recommend it enough.