sarsaparilla

Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla

History: It seems appropriate to name a sarsaparilla after a wild west saloon keeper, gambler, and gunslinger. Wyatt Earp was famous for his involvement in the 1891 shootout at the O.K. Corral. But did you know he has a living, breathing relative in Mukilteo, Washington? Mike Earp is the owner of Earp’s Western Foods, known for its steak sauce. He’s also a descendant of the legendary Wyatt Earp himself. Here’s an even bigger coincidence – Mukilteo, Washington is also the home to Orca Beverage, one of the biggest craft soda producers and distributors in the nation. Orca Beverage owner, Mike Bourgeois, and his team were actually developing a new sarsaparilla and they wanted a western name for it. He kept thinking of the imagery on the label of Earp’s Western Steak Sauce, which is a photo of Mike Earp resembling his famous relative. Because what goes better together than craft soda and steak sauce? Not literally. Although, that probably is some terrible variation of a Lester’s Fixins soda. “What better name for a great Western sarsaparilla than Earp’s Sarsaparilla?” asks Bourgeois. Earp agreed, humorously conceding, “Well, jeez, why didn’t I think of that?” The two companies formed a partnership and released the first batch of Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla in May of 2011. Aside from using pure cane sugar, Bourgeois notes that there’s a “slight smoky component” to the sarsaparilla flavor. We’ve got our boots on and ready to sample.

Where to get: Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla is a nationally distributed soda. You can purchase it online from Summit City Soda.

Nose: Kind of a funky smell. A little bit of mint and a lot of licorice.

Taste: Sarsaparilla; mint; mild bite. You’ll taste the mint first. The mint flavor seems to be different in Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla than it tastes in say, birch beer or root beer. It’s kind of has a mint tea flavor to it. Odd. The sarsaparilla taste here is pretty mild actually. It’s right up front with the mint as well. You’ll taste a noticeably sweet wintergreen bite near the end of the sip. These are your mint flavors. Herbal mint, traditional, yet mild sarsaparilla root, and sweet wintergreen with a bit of zip.

Finish: Wintergreen breath mints that linger along the sides of the tongue.

Rating: Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla is something someone could hand you if you requested a sarsaparilla and you wouldn’t blink an eye. It’s not bad, but it’s not elite. It has enough flavor to satisfy most casual soda drinkers, but the craft soda audience may long for a deeper gustation experience. The mint steals the show in this sarsaparilla, while the sarsaparilla root flavor itself is pretty light. There’s a little bit of a bite to this, like a root beer, but not quite to the level of most sarsaparillas. If you’re a big root beer or sarsaparilla fan, then this is probably one you’ll want to try if for no other reason than to check it off your list. Personally, this is probably my last endeavor with this particular brand. I think the signature sarsaparilla taste needs to be much bolder. The sweet wintergreen bite on the finish is nice, but it’s the second mint flavor you taste in the course of a few seconds. I’d just like to see more flavor variance. Earp’s Original Sarsaparilla is the nice, nerdy girl in the back of physics class without a homecoming date. You’ll ask her if you can’t find anyone else, but you’re probably trying to play in a different league before you go there.

Three Stars

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Bickford’s: Sarsaparilla

History: Bickford’s is a brand rooted in tradition. Since 1874, the South Australian company has been producing its famous cordials. The company makes a whole host of other products too, including its Bickford’s Old Style Soda line of seven different flavors. One of the most popular is sarsaparilla. Says Bickford’s Brand Manager Beverley Reeves, “Sarsaparilla is the fastest growing in some of our overseas markets perhaps because the flavors are different from those that consumers there would normally be familiar with.” According to Reeves, the soda’s recipe is still the same as it was decades ago. Like America, the Australian soda scene continues to evolve. Reeves adds that there is a “shift from mainstream to more differentiated flavours and brands with a story.” In the end, it’ll always come down to taste and Bickford’s Sarsaparilla was designed with a bold licorice flavor in mind. Knowing that, I wouldn’t expect this to be particularly fluffy on the palate. Previously, we reviewed their creamy soda that has a touch of raspberry. So Bickford’s definitely seems to be a company that makes traditional flavors with nontraditional tastes. A fan favorite in its native country, Reeves gave us the inside scoop that Bickford’s is soon coming to America and will debut in October. We’ll keep you posted when and where as soon as details become available. In the mean time, there’s ice cold sarsaparilla waiting for you.

Where to get: In Australia, you can find Bickford’s Sarsaparilla at “most major supermarkets and convenience stores,” according to its website. Now you might pay some hefty shipping outside of Australia, but you can also buy Bickford’s Sarsaparilla online via Sippify.

Nose: Strong black licorice; anise. There’s a mild hint of root beer on the nose, but this smells very, very rich in licorice. Pucker up.

Taste: Licorice; anise; sarsaparilla root. This is definitely more of a botanical sarsaparilla as opposed to a creamy one with lots of vanilla. You’ll really notice the sarsaparilla root flavor in this drink. It’s bold and very herbal. There’s a semisweet sensation encapsulated by frothy bubbles that coats the tongue as the sarsaparilla flavor fades. At brief points in the soda, there’s even a little bit of a cola flavor, but this is a sarsaparilla anchored by strong sarsaparilla root, sassafras, and licorice flavors. The licorice isn’t as pronounced in the flavor profile as it is on the nose, but really shows up in the aftertaste. Definitely black licorice flavor, but not overly strong.

Finish: Tart sarsaparilla root with lingering notes of licorice.

Rating: Bickford’s sarsaparilla is a stark departure from American takes on the flavor, utilizing a strong herbal flavor profile instead of a smooth, creamy one. The tasting notes that stand out most are unmistakably sarsaparilla root and licorice. The sarsaparilla flavor is stronger, but the licorice is particularly noteworthy. Coming in near the end of each sip along with a wave of champagne-like bubbles; it’s a commendable use of a flavor that often overpowers the soda experience. Another aspect that stands out is the tartness on the finish. It’s a crisp herbal reminder that reinforces you’re definitely drinking sarsaparilla and not root beer. I could’ve used a sign like that during my second engagement If you’re not a fan of botanical sodas, you’re not going to enjoy Bickford’s Sarsaparilla. This is a soft drink for the slightly more adventurous soda connoisseur. It isn’t particularly sweet and relies more on its herbals flavors to impress its drinkers. The sugar, while lower in the flavor profile, is noticeably crisp. Bickford’s Sarsaparilla should be a hit with lovers of botanical sodas and die-hard sarsaparilla drinkers. It won’t be for everyone, but this soda knows its niche and leaves an Australian footprint in the sarsaparilla marketplace.

Chuck Wagon Soda: Sarsaparilla

History: It all started with chicken wings. Years and years ago, Chuck Wagon Soda owner Terry Schaeffer sold chicken wings off a concession trailer. It was 21 feet long. The problem? You had to buy 30 feet of space. I wasn’t a math major, but that leaves nine feet of nothing. So Schaeffer thought about it. He figured he’s from Pennsylvania, where a lot of vintage sodas are already produced… why not try his hand at at too? It’d give consumers something cold to wash down those spicy wings. But he wanted to keep it old school. “They used to feed cowboys off a chuck wagon,” he says matter-of-factly. Schaeffer himself looks a bit cowboy-ish with mustache so thick you could comfortably sleep on it. And thus, Chuck Wagon Soda was born. It’s literally a wagon stand of barrels with soda on tap in each, commonly sold at festivals or events. Shaeffer actually sells these custom-built wagons to interested vendors. The production started in 2000 and in the first seven years they sold eight wagons. Since then, Schaeffer says, they’ve sold 93. The wagon sales are actually the main portion of the company’s business. Bottled soda sales account for a fraction of Chuck Wagon Soda’s income, but Schaeffer wanted customers without access to the wagons to have a chance to try the soda. Chuck Wagon Soda sells seven of its flavors in bottles and 11 on the wagons. Among some of the wagon exclusives include exotic flavors like lemon cream and raspberry cream. Today’s review, sarsaparilla, is made with old sassafras that is native to Pennsylvania. The company worked with a chemist to ensure all their flavors were up to their tasting standards. And like many craft sodas, these are made with pure cane sugar, top-quality ingredients, and use limited preservatives.

Where to get: Because soda is such a small part of the business, outside of finding a Chuck Wagon Soda vender randomly, your best bet is to go online to Chuck Wagon’s website to order these puppies.

Nose: Birch bark; sassafras; caramel; old-fashioned root beer. This smells like the root beer you get at the fair. It’s a very olde tyme scent.

Taste: Sassafras root; molasses; vanilla; light mint; throwback root beer. This is branded as “Old Fashioned Soda” and it tastes like it. It’s got a very classic fairgrounds, crisp root beer flavor with strong notes of sassafras, sarsaparilla root, and what I believe to be molasses. There could also be a little bit of caramel flavoring in here. I’m reminded of when I used to get root beer at the fair served in a silver mug, a notion I find humorous because that’s exactly what Chuck Wagon Soda does when they sell their soda on site. They literally make their own tin mugs. This sarsaparilla is not creamy. In fact, it has a little bit of a minty bite to it, but one that isn’t harsh on the palate and doesn’t distract from the overall flavor profile. There’s definitely some vanilla in this, but it gets overpowered by the sassafras and sarsaparilla root flavors. Those are your main two flavor profiles in this drink and they tend to blanket the complimenting flavors. You can taste them, I’d just like to see the vanilla and molasses shine a bit more.

Finish: Vanilla and caramel with a minty, classic sassafras root taste. This is the creamiest part of the soda, but one that quickly fades.

Rating: This is most definitely old-fashioned flavor personified in the modern beverage industry. Bold sassafras and sarsaparilla root stand out in this take on sarsaparilla that places you back in the early 1900’s at Grandpappy’s Saloon. Notes of vanilla and molasses linger about but never seem to find their place. Kind of like me in high school. But you can really taste that rich Pennsylvania sassafras. Chuck Wagon Soda executes the main flavors in this sarsaparilla in a palate-pleasing manner, but falls just short on incorporating a supporting cast to form a well-rounded flavor profile. I’d recommend this soda on a hot day out by the pool. Definitely worth a shot, but probably not something that will blow away the avid soda connoisseur.

Caamaño Bros: High Noon Sarsaparilla

History: Caamaño Bros Soda was the idea of a couple young guns, Sebastián and Alejandro Caamaño. One day, their father, Christopher Caamaño, a chef with a rich family heritage and culinary background, took his family to a restaurant where he was delivered a carafe of water that tasted different. The restaurant told him they carbonated it themselves. With the benefit of an extensive background in the restaurant business, Caamaño decided that with the Berkeley, California area “having the best municipal water in the world,” he’d do the same thing at his home. For reference, the San Francisco area sources their tap water from High Sierra snow melt. Trust me, we don’t know what it means either. But it sounds nice. Long story short, his kids realized if they just added sugar and flavoring to their homemade carbonated water, they’d have soda. So in 2010, Caamaño Bros Soda was born. Christopher Caamaño chose a childhood favorite, sarsaparilla, with which to begin. The home testing blossomed into a lemonade-esque stand in front of a horticultural nursery. Eventually sponsors of local farmer’s markets, as well as restaurant gurus began telling them to take their production to the next level. Today, their soda business is still 100% a family operation. “Our whole promise was to turn the clock back 80 years and make soda pops the way they were intended,” said Caamaño. The family named their first beverage “High Noon Sarsaparilla.” It continues to be the staple of their business. And it isn’t exactly easy to produce. The family sources 14 different ingredients from five different continents. It’s a true vintage sarsaparilla, modeled after the way it used to be made in the old west. Here’s a quick, fun history lesson. In 1960, the. U.S. banned sassafras oil and a substance it contains, safrole, due to the psychotropic effects of safrole. What I’m trying to say is, the government didn’t want you tripping balls off sassafras or the products it could be used in, like sarsaparilla. MDMA is actually rendered from safrole, Caamaño says with a laugh. Needless to say, the family does their research. They family, however, does not do MDMA.

Where to get: Caamaño Bros Soda is distributed mainly throughout the Napa Valley, Sonoma, Oakland and San Francisco areas. It’s also available in Western BevMo outlets. The “High Noon Sarsaparilla” can also be ordered online from various retailers.

Nose: Light; earthy; vanilla; sassafras root.

Taste: Vanilla; sassafras; creamy cola; sweet, earthy notes (yes, I know that’s a contradiction). Soft vanilla and sweet sassafras root begin in this complicated flavor profile. Caamaño and his sons put an enormous amount of research, effort and money into their ingredients. For example, they source their sarsaparilla root from a farm in Jamaica. A gallon of that ONE ingredient alone costs them $500 a gallon. The recipe went through over 60 different drafts. You can taste the difference. As the soda progresses, it transforms, giving it a balanced, creamy cola flavor with just a hint of root beer. It literally begins to taste like cola as opposed to sarsaparilla. You get a little bit of light cherry in there too. This soda morphs as you get to know it, kind of like my ex-girlfriend, except the changes in my sarsaparilla don’t give me nightmares. Caamaño recommends drinking this with lots of ice. As the ice melts, the flavor once again morphs back to more of a root beer, this time with a little bit more of an earthy, creamy flavor. It’s light. The sugar amount is perfect. It isn’t syrupy and has just the right amount of creaminess without going overboard. All in all, this is spectacular.

Finish: Light; creamy vanilla with some lingering earthiness; then mild cherry-vanilla cola. It changes back and forth as you drink it.

Rating: This has all of the right dynamics going for it. It manages to maintain a creamy, smoothness that incorporates a variety of flavors without being too carbonated or too sugary. The root beer bite is perfect. It’s there, but isn’t overwhelming or too sharp. The blend of vanilla, sassafras root and creamy cola flavors take this levels above its competitors. It’s so easy to drink for a sarsaparilla, you’d swear it was a cola if you didn’t focus on the ingredients. Caamaño Bros place an extreme emphasis on their ingredients and its obvious their research and diligence has paid off. This is soda porn. You won’t even want to tell your friends about this. This is your special weekend girl you fly in from the West Coast who’s way out of your league, who you just lucked out with. This is the best sarsaparilla we’ve ever had, hands down. Find the Caamaño family. They’ll spread the love. Sorry, we have to go keep cheating on other sodas with this one now.