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What is Sarsaparilla?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

When the cartoon character Yosemite Sam burst through the doors of an Old West saloon, he routinely asked for a "sasparilly, and make it snappy!" The drink was actually called either sarsaparilla or sasparilla. It was made from the root of the sarsaparilla plant, and it tasted much like today's root beer. A carbonated beverage called sarsaparilla is still manufactured, but its taste is largely the result of artificial flavorings.

The sarsaparilla plant, or Smilax regelii, is mostly a vine and is found primarily in Central America and South America. The most valued portion of the plant is its root, which has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, much like ginseng or licorice root. The plant's root is very bitter, so it was a common practice for pharmacists to distill the useful chemicals and mix them with sugar water. Thus a popular beverage was born, years before other chemists would invent other medicinal drinks such as the original formulations of some well-known soft drinks.

Sarsaparilla flowers.
Sarsaparilla flowers.

There has been much debate over the true formula of the original beverage. The Smilax regelii plant was definitely used as a medicinal tonic, and it was often served as a sweetened beverage. Other formulas used a combination of birch oil and sassafras as a substitute for sarsaparilla root.

Some people believe that the informal name of the drink, sasparilla, indicates the use of sassafras extract. Others say that the name is a corruption or mispronunciation of its actual name. The modern beverage is closer to a mixture of birch oil and sassafras than the more bitter sarsaparilla extract.

Sioux City Sarsaparilla label.
Sioux City Sarsaparilla label.

Extracts from the Smilax regelii plant still are sold for medicinal purposes, and the roots can be purchased in many grocery stores or health food stores. The beverage, however, can be a little more difficult for consumers to find. Smaller bottling companies might produce a version for local consumption, but the popularity of root beer has led to a considerable reduction in popularity of traditional sarsaparilla. Indeed, the chances of someone bellying up to the bar and demanding a "sasparilly" have become rather small.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular DelightedCooking contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular DelightedCooking contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


I've always preferred birch beer and sarsaparilla to commercial root beer. I live in a small town and, somewhat surprisingly, the local Ace hardware store carries both sarsaparilla and "red" birch beer. I don't care for the birch beer but the sarsaparilla is tasty and it's even cheaper than their name brand canned pop: $1.39/qt.


I bought some KC Sarsaparilla at Orscheln's. I'm tasting a distinct peppermint taste that's not in the other root beers I've had. Some complain of a lack of carbonation but I think the carbonation is perfect. It's delicious, although a little heavy.


As a child (I'm 62 now) I always heard of sarsaparilla soda, but never tried it. I didn't even like root beer soda much, liking cola or ginger ale better, but as I am getting older (and quickly) I developed a taste for root beer and would like to try sarsaparilla soda too. I'm told it tastes similar, but very expensive, so on to search for some "not so costly" sarsaparilla soda.


The name swayed and lemon comes from long ago the syrup came in a square bottle (or so I was told). But is that only in Australia? I was told it was manufactured in Tasmania and is used commonly as a name there.


"Sarsaparilla" always sounded to me like a corruption of "sassafras root" plus "vanilla" ("Sassavanilla")--both ingredients of root beer.


I have to wonder about the fact that sassafras is really carcinogenic. Sure, it contains safrole (and unfortunately the trees are cut down for that oil, because it's the prime precursor to make MDA/MDMA ecstasy. People have been using it for yonks and I don't think there's ever been any correlation between sassy drinks, etc. and dying. It's just the government's idea of control, I reckon.

But yeah, I just bought a four pack of "Bundaberg" sarsaparilla and got to thinking about what the actual flavor molecule looks like. Vanilla is well known (vanillin), and so is cherry (vanillin with a methylene dioxy group (piperonal) but what the heck is the sarsaparilla molecule? A mix, maybe?


If sassafras is used, wouldn't it then be root beer rather than sarsaparilla? Modern sarsaparilla drinks are made with artificial flavors and taste less bitter than the original and more like a root beer anyway.


Rural King (a farm supply type store) carries Kansas City Authentic Sarsaparilla/ $1.19 for 32 ounces, but it's artificially flavored.

Sassafras tea. I have three small sassafras trees in my yard (in Southern Indiana). They're probably not big enough to dig up a good enough sized root to make tea, but I would love to have some.


I've just been taken back over 45-plus years, this week by purchasing from Tesco a Baldwins Sarsaparilla. It took me back to my childhood when I used to go to East Street market in Walworth, South East London with my gran and we'd buy hot sarsaparilla off their stall. We would also purchase 1 gallon bottles from Baldwins in Walworth Road and take the bottles back for refills.

Yummy. Can't believe I'm drinking it hot and cold all over again! Awesome!


In Sheffield, England in the 60's and early 70's there was a 'temperance bar' run by an old Italian and he made the most delicious Sarsaparilla as we knew the name. This was hand drawn and sold by the 1/4, 1/2 or full pint at 1 shilling and threepence a pint (about 6 pence after decimalisation. This was also a favorite after swimming in the local pool. Happy memories.


I have very fond memories of hot sarsparilla from Rathbone Street Market, Canning Town in the 60's/70's when I was a little girl but also cold in the summer. You can buy it in Tesco & Sainsbury but for me, it will never be the same as in the market. Happy memories.


In the 1950's you could buy hot sarsaparilla drinks from a stall in the Rathbone Street Market in Canning Town, East London. I recently saw it on sale in a local Asian supermarket and can now enjoy it as a hot drink again.


We sell Sioux City sodas in our pie shop and they have a Sarsaparilla, which they call "The Grandaddy of all Root Beers" and have a picture of a cowboy bursting through the saloon doors - no doubt to ask for that "Sarsaparilla". It seems obvious to me that both Sassafras and Sarsaparilla were well know in the 1800s and some outfit just put the two together for that name and drink. Dave at Sweetie Pies in Fish Creek, WI


re: why the informal name sasparilla?

Could be derived from the German name for this drink: Sassaparille. Had to go to a German-English dictionary from 1876 to find this name - it didn't appear in a newer dictionary.


Why is Sarsapirilla also called 'square and lemon'?

I have asked many people and looked on the internet but I just can't find the answer.

I would be very interested to know if anyone knows the answer to this question. Thanks.


I remember my dad making sassafras tea when I was a child in the late 50's and early 60's.


i am 80 years old and in my youth we lived at a place called padstow. the sars vine was everywhere and we used to chew the leaves with gusto. also there was a kiosk in parramatta who used to sell it neat with a dash of soda. it is an acquired taste but I love it.


I am 85 years of age and can distinctly remember my grandfather making sarsaparilla from a vine.He would then use it as a mixer for his schnapps. Ah yes, the good old schnapps and sars. I think that I may try a drop. --latchkey


You can buy cordials sarsaparilla, dandelion and burdock, ginger beer and blood tonics in a little temperance bar in a place called Rawtenstall, Lancashire, 30 minutes north of Manchester. They have a small bar selling hot and cold drinks. Mr Fitzpatricks, Britain's last original Temperance bar Est, 1890. Well worth a trip back in time.


I live in a town near the coast in NSW australia, and drink it every week. i want to know if you can make sarsaparilla in a micro brewery without making it alcoholic, using licorice root, sarsaparilla extract, vanilla bean and sativa. Any ideas?


Oh boy this takes me back. As children in the late 60's we would buy the 'black stuff' in Hyde, Manchester for a shilling a pint.(£0.05) Three or four kids would share one after our Saturday swimming. Very odd drink. I always thought it smelled and tasted like oil, sure tasted good though. I don't recall it being carbonated, though? I am almost certain it was flat/bubble free from a barrel.


Sarsaparilla is also quite famous in Indonesia. Moving here, I've found at least five brands of it (and root beer), usually found in most supermarkets.


The best quality is at china, at gyaaro mountains.


I said, sassafras is not just found in the western U.S. It's found all over the Southeast--probably everywhere in the U.S. except on the prairie. I've lived in KY, VA, TN, NC, SC, GA, AL, and MS; and I've found it in all those states. When I was a kid, we'd gather sassafras to make sassafras tea, a drink that tastes very similar to root beer; root beer being from licorice root.

Anyway, sassafras was used to make tea in the Southeast before white settlers ever ventured beyond the Mississippi River--probably before the European invasion that began in 1492.


sarsaparilla is very easy to get here in brisbane, australia. it is sold in almost all large supermarket chains like coles, so much so i had a tough choice choosing the brand i wanted to buy. :3


Sarsaparilla can be found in St Croix. Many of the locals use the root and sell it at their farmers market. They also sell Mauby juice. I've purchased both and if found in it's natural juice form does have medicinal purposes. Oh yes, I even got it through customs coming home.


Moved from Monterey, CA to Taiwan a few months ago. Yesterday I noticed 6 packs of Hey Song Sarsaparilla on the shelf at the CareFour grocery store. Have not even thought of sarsaparilla for maybe 30 or 40 years. Pretty delicious treat! I guess its quite popular here. Lots of info on the web.


Sarsparilla can still be found in some old-time country stores and also upscale grocery stores. It's good stuff!

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    • Sarsaparilla flowers.
      By: Brad P.
      Sarsaparilla flowers.
    • Sioux City Sarsaparilla label.
      By: Like_the_Grand_Canyon
      Sioux City Sarsaparilla label.
    • Bundaberg Sarsaparilla label.
      By: Gurney
      Bundaberg Sarsaparilla label.
    • Sarsaparilla.
      By: karandaev
    • Old West saloons might have served sarsaparilla.
      By: Natalia Bratslavsky
      Old West saloons might have served sarsaparilla.