Few cold treats satisfy like a good root beer float. The spicy sarsaparilla and licorice notes of the root beer are counterbalanced by the sweet mediocrity of the vanilla ice cream. The melting ice cream creates a thick beverage that stays effervescent. The centimeters of float foam that get generated after plopping a scoop of ice cream in the root beer is almost cotton-candy-like in its nothingness. It’s three treats (foam, ice cream, and soda) created from two ingredients. How magical!
As kids we did not experiment much with our root beer float recipe—why quit a good thing?—and when I think of floats, root beer is the only acceptable beverage that springs to mind. But now that I am over the hill, my midlife crisis was not to grow a ponytail or buy a Miata, but to scratch a float itch: are other sparkling drinks worthy of floating, and should I break out of my root beer routine?
To solve this nagging question, I cast a wide net including but not limited to soft drinks. Specifically I was looking for different flavor profiles: tart, spicy, hoppy, and sweet. I considered both soft and adult beverages, because both have bubbles. Bubbles are key.
During the taste test, I kept the float proportions similar each time (one scoop of vanilla ice cream to approximately 6 ounces of beverage), allowing a minute or two for the ice cream to comingle with its host. I evaluated each concoction based on the components I appreciate in a good root beer float:
- Taste of the foam
- Taste of the overall drink
With these criteria in mind, I rendered a verdict. Here’s what I found out about each beverage’s float-worthiness.
I picked Sidral Mundet, a Mexican apple-flavored soda, with the anticipation that the resulting float would taste like apple pie a la mode. It didn’t. The beverage was too much sweet on top of sweet. Low on foam and remnant carbonation, the soda did look nice as it took on a light amber color after the addition of the ice cream. This was a case where the ice cream and soda both taste better separately, and one plus one do not make three. Verdict: Not float-worthy
Admittedly I picked the least expensive cava I could find. As the cava mixed with the vanilla ice cream, it made a big foamy head but then appeared to curdle or separate, leaving miniature strands of ice cream floating in the wine. The bubbliness persisted for several minutes, but that could not offset the sheer rancidness of the float. It tasted like an upset stomach. Avoid at all costs. Verdict: Good God, never float again
This mixture looked nice, with a coconutty cloudiness. That’s about the only positive feedback. There was not enough oomph from the ice cream to go against the “not sweet” lime nothingness that makes sparkling water typically refreshing. It tasted like someone dumped a glass of LaCroix into a bowl of ice cream, which in hindsight makes perfect sense. I don’t know that the Lime flavor was the problem either—I’m sure Pure or Tangerine or Pamplemousse would all taste equally terrible when mixed with the ice cream. Verdict: Not float-worthy
I approached this mix with skepticism: could the King of Beers truly reign in Floatland? Possibly. The beer turned a very light yellow, generated a big head of foam, and kept most of its heavy carbonation. The maltiness of the beer was easy to distinguish in the float. It complemented the vanilla ice cream nicely. I didn’t expect this to happen, since beer and ice cream are on opposite ends of the flavor spectrum. Also, this did not have a long shelf life: the more the two incorporated the worse it tasted. So if you’re going to drink this, drink it quickly. Verdict: Barely float-worthy
The closest in the peer group to root beer, Dr Pepper even recently went so far as to introduce a cream soda flavor, subconsciously persuading me to try it. Where Dr Pepper shined brightest was in the foam. It went high and had that same root beery consistency. The foam got better as time went by, developing a darker brown crust. The beverage itself tasted fine with the vanilla ice cream, but the effervescence got a little diluted. Were Dr Pepper a little more pungent, this combination could really skyrocket. Verdict: Float-worthy
This was an experience not too different from the Sidral—again, sweet on sweet. Since the ginger ale had slightly more flavor strength, it held up slightly better. Foam-wise this float created less, but what was there was tasty. The drink turned Gap khaki beige with the addition of vanilla ice cream. There are better alternatives, but ginger ale will do in a pinch. If you’re hankering for a ginger ale float, make sure to find a variety with ample ginger flavor. Verdict: Barely float-worthy
I’d never had kombucha, but was influenced by some personal influencers to include this in the test set. I’m glad I did. Although the amount of foam was minimal, the drink turned a pleasing Nantucket red color once the ice cream was introduced. A step up from the Budweiser, I’d say this was also not terrible, bordering on all right. The ice cream really balances out the strength of the vinegar, and the sourness and vanilla-ness played surprisingly well with each other. Cherry ended up being a good gateway pick. Verdict: Float-worthy
This was my first time actually buying Red Bull—every other experience I’ve had with this drink has involved someone handing me Red Bull mixed with something else either too late at night or too early in the morning. The Red Bull’s light sparkle persisted when paired with the ice cream. The foam was near nonexistent and seemed to keep its distance from integrating with the ice cream. I had to combine the two flavors by dipping a spoonful of the ice cream directly into the drink. When I did that, the fruitiness of the energy drink melded well with vanilla. Perhaps the next time I need to pull an all nighter (hopefully never again!) this will be the treat that gets me through the night. Verdict: Float-worthy
Is there life beyond root beer? Yes, absolutely. But go bold with your beverages, as shown with the success of kombucha and Red Bull. Aggressive, unique flavors that aren’t too sweet to begin with (except sparkling wine, because that was terrible) worked best against the vanilla ice cream. The sweetness of the ice cream cushions the sharpness of the bubbly drinks. So be prepared, pineapple kombuchas, chocolatey porters, and ginger beers of the world—you may be subject to floating.