Ever since I was a kid, I have seen references to sarsaparilla. All the kids in western and nineteenth-century stories were always drinking it. It seemed to be very popular, and I've always wondered: how come you can't get it today?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Sarsaparilla is still around, but it takes a little poking to turn it up. The drink, which tastes a great deal like root beer, is still popular in some parts of the U.S. — the folks in Pittsburgh, I understand, are crazy about the stuff. Although none of the major soft-drink manufacturers markets a national brand, all continue to make the flavor base available to any local bottler who cares to market sarsaparilla on his own. Many cities have a specialty store or two that carries these brands; ask around.
You might think that sarsaparilla would be made from extract of the sarsaparilla plant, a tropical vine distantly related to the lily, but you’d be wrong. It was originally made (artificial flavors have taken over now, of course) from a blend of birch oil and sassafras, the dried root bark of the sassafras tree. Sassafras was widely used as a home remedy in the nineteenth century — taken in sufficient doses, it induces sweating, which some people thought was a good thing. Sarsaparilla apparently made its debut as a patent medicine, an easy-to-take form of sassafras, much as Coca-Cola was first marketed in 1885 as a remedy for hangovers and headaches.
Why isn’t sarsaparilla popular anymore? Basically, it just lost out to cola, like almost every other flavor you could name. Root beer, sarsaparilla’s closest cousin and once America’s most popular soft drink, now accounts for less than 4 percent of the national market. Sarsaparilla’s share is too small to be measured.
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