My recent post on birch beer got me rather excited about other antiquated soft drinks and, in keeping with the theme of root beverages, I decided to buy some sasparilla.
Sasparilla has a rather tangled history. Food historians are generally divided as to the nature and origins of this distinctly American soft drink. Some contend the very name indicates sasparilla's traditional main ingredient to be sarsaparilla, a vine plant known for its medicinal properties. In the nineteenth century, sarsaparilla was mixed into a sweet beverage and served to syphilis patients. Others believe the basis for sasparilla is the extract of sassafras, a deciduous tree whose roots are used in the making of commercial root beer.
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Two additional points of confusion: sarsaparilla is sometimes, but less often, used to make root beer and sasparilla, even when made from sassafras, is sometimes still called sarsaparilla. Confused? Go figure.
These days most any sasparilla you buy in a grocery store (such as those made by the Maine or Sioux City companies) is probably artificially flavored, so don't waste your time scanning the ingredients should you insist on sassafras over sarsaparilla. Homebrew stores sometimes carry actual sasparilla starter kits. You can also check Amazon.com and eBay for mixes made by Fee Brothers and others.
Commercially manufactured sasparilla is unsurprisingly similar in taste to root beer and, in a blind test, I had trouble telling the difference. On the one occasion years ago I had non-artificial sasparilla, I remember hints of honey and licorice that usually aren't present in root beer. The two drinks can, however, be visibly different as sasparilla tends to be a darker, deeper brown.
As a result, I recommend sasparilla more for its novelty than its uniqueness in flavor. It would go nicely with a chili cheese dog or would make a fun food favor for a Wild West Party.