Sarsaparilla root is well know as the key ingredient in the carbonated soft drink, sarsaparilla, along with the highly controversial sassafras root. It is the key ingredient in Root Beer due to its bold bitter taste profile.
In the American “Old West” sarsaparilla was the most popular drink of the cowboys.
Cowboy: "You got a good Sarsparilla?"
Barman: "Sioux City Sarsaparilla?"
Cowboy: "Yeah, that's a good one"
Cowboy | The Big Lebowski | Film by the Coen Brothers | 1998
True sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.) is a tropical woody vine that grows deep in the canopy of the rainforest. It is native to South America, the West Indies, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Honduras, and Mexico, where the Spaniards encountered the plant and introduced it to Europe in the 16th century.
There are various species of sarsaparilla, all valued by the natives for their medicinal qualities. The ground cover wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) of the northeast is not related to Smilax sarsaparilla but has similar flavoring. Its aromatic rhizomes can be used as a substitute for true sarsaparilla (explaining how it got its name).
The plants are climbing or trailing vines with prickly stems. The rhizomes are short and thick, with very long, thin roots. The plants are harvested after attaining 2–3 years of age. They are carefully dug up and cut off near the stock, which is then covered up again with surface soil. The harvested roots are then washed well, dried in the sun, and tied up in bundles. The roots contain a bitter principle which is used as a flavoring agent. It is chiefly used as a beverage condiment for the preparation of soft drinks. Sarsaparilla is mostly used in combination with winter green and other aromatic plants.
Many people know sarsaparilla as an old-time soda similar to root beer. In fact, the drink called sarsaparilla was made with sasafras, birch bark, and other flavours, but no actual sarsaparilla. The climbing thorny vine that really is sarsaparilla has been used as a traditional medicine in its native Central America.
The ground, dried root can be used as an ingredient in liqueurs and other spirits. The ground root of another vine, Indian sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus) is also popular in the spice trade for its sweet, spicy, vanilla flavour.
Oregon's Aviation gin relies on Indian sarsaparilla for a rich, deep cola flavour that its distillers believe helps the high notes stand out and makes Aviation distinctive.
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Common Name: Sarsaparilla
Botanical Name: Smilax aristolochiifolia
Country of Origin: India