There’s a great scene in The Big Lebowski when Sam Elliott’s character inexplicably asks a bowling alley bartender, “You got a good sarsaparilla?” It’s an old-timey request, although it feels natural coming from Elliott’s brilliantly mustachioed mouth. The bartender passes him something that looks a lot like root beer—but isn’t. Ready for your cowboy lesson of the day? Here goes: While modern sarsaparilla and root beer have similar properties, they have very different origins.
Sarsaparilla has a rich history beyond hokey westerns and touristy roadside saloons. It was originally derived from the zarzaparrilla vine, which originated in parts of Central and South America. Indigenous communities in those regions used its roots for a number of medicinal purposes, including treating colds and skin issues; much later, U.S. settlers created sarsaparilla tonics to treat obscure ailments of the blood, as well as sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea. That’s likely how sarsaparilla became associated with saloon culture. (Pharmacies were few and far between, and hardscrabble cowboys looked for medicine in all the wrong places.) Regardless, sarsaparilla was prized for its distinct taste, which featured bold, slightly bitter notes of wintergreen and licorice.
If you’re interested in clicking your spurs together and scoring your own bottle of sarsaparilla, you can order it online from vendors like Sioux City—coincidentally, the brand cited in The Big Lebowski scene. Just don’t expect to experience the same flavor as your cowboy forebears. The Sioux City ingredient label doesn’t say anything about zarzaparrilla vine.
Today’s root beer is almost interchangeable with sarsaparilla, but it wasn’t always that way. Root beer was originally derived from the sassafras tree, a member of the laurel family which is native to North America and parts of Eastern Asia. The tree has long been used for its medicinal properties by Cherokee communities. Like sarsaparilla, sassafras was soon co-opted by settlers who learned of its remedy status; also like sarsaparilla, the sassafras root was combined with water and flavoring and bottled in the nineteenth century.
Unfortunately, the sassafras tree has a dirty little secret: a volatile compound called safrole, which has been banned by the FDA due to its potentially toxic effects. With that, root beer manufacturers stopped using sassafras in their products, replacing it with other flavor additives like caramel, vanilla, licorice root, and wintergreen. That’s why some describe root beer as an “adulterated sarsaparilla,” although both drinks have strayed far from their, ahem, roots.
With this knowledge in mind, you’re free to go forth and embrace your inner cowboy. And if you encounter any yellow-bellied tenderfoots who say otherwise, send ’em our way.