What Do You Know About Sarsaparilla?
Sarsaparilla soda - commonly mispronounced as "sasparilla" - can trace its roots to pre-colonial times. Over the centuries its popularity waxed and waned and it's been credited with - and then discredited as - being a method for resolving countless medical conditions. While it's spent much of the past 50 years declining in popularity, companies like Rocky Mountain Soda Co., with our South Park Sarsaparilla soda, have recently led a resurgence in interest in this most historic of all soft drinks.
The Origins and Precursors of Sarsaparilla Pop
It was not European colonizers but rather the native peoples of North America who would be the first to understand and enjoy the benefits of the sarsaparilla plant. Historical records indicate that Westerners first encountered sarsaparilla beverages in what are now Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
The people in those areas had been consuming sarsaparilla for centuries. They believed the root of the sarsaparilla plant had potent medicinal qualities and used the kind of sarsaparilla root tea they brewed to cure everything from impotence to flatulence. Did it work? Not really. But if people believed they felt better after drinking it then it's all good.
The Conquistadors and their entourage who first encountered the drink in the 16th century paid attention when local healers ascribed all manner of miraculous qualities to the sarsaparilla root. As a result, it wasn't long before they were sending it home to receptive Europeans willing to believe just about anything related to things that originated in the exotic "New World".
Some of the medicinal claims being made about sarsaparilla included the aforementioned ability to cure impotence and prevent flatulence, along with the ability to treat a variety of skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis and to provide relief from rheumatism and various digestive disorders. And let's not forget that for a time it was touted as a cure for syphilis.
But as medical claim after medical claim fell by the wayside a new appreciation for the taste of sarsaparilla beverages developed and it was that which remains to this day.
From Carminative to Soda Counter Stalwart
Once most of the hubbub surrounding sarsaparilla as a potential cure-all faded away people were reluctant to give up their sarsaparilla beverages because, frankly, they liked the way the stuff tasted. But it wasn't until the invention of carbonation by Englishman Joseph Priestley in the late 18th century that sarsaparilla's ultimate fate as a modern soft drink was sealed.
Like most soft drinks at the time sarsaparilla soda first appeared at drug store soda counters in the 19th century. Why? Because people at the time believed that carbonated water had, you guessed it, health benefits soda water was sold in pharmacies alongside prescription drugs.
"Soda jerks" of the time (the people who dispensed soda at pharmacy counters) soon took to mixing sarsaparilla syrup with various flavorings such as vanilla and caramel increasing its appeal and setting the stage for an explosion in popularity.
The Wild West Embraces Sarsaparilla
But sarsaparilla's popularity was not confined to the pharmacy soda counter. As unlikely as it may seem it was simultaneously spreading throughout the saloons and taverns of the Wild West. That's right, in between rustling cattle and spending their ill-gotten gains at the local brothel many a Wild West outlaw depended on sarsaparilla to cure their hangovers, calm their upset stomachs, and generally provide a non-alcoholic alternative beverage.
Lots of Wild West icons including Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp have been depicted in movies and TV shows enjoying sarsaparilla during their 'quiet time'. Did they drink the stuff? Hard to say. They likely tried sarsaparilla at some point. Whether they or other Wild West personalities actually took a shine to it is unknown. But claiming so certainly helped market the drink during the first half of the 20th century.
The Fall of Sarsaparilla
As the country moved into the 1920s and 1930s new soda flavors were emerging seemingly every week. With so much competition and a growing preference among young Americans for the latest everything, sarsaparilla pop began to seem old-fashioned and quaint and began to experience a long, inexorable decline in popularity and sales. In time it became a niche beverage and was eventually almost completely overshadowed by its close relative, root beer.
Up From the Ashes
But just as soft drink industry experts were beginning to sound the death knell for sarsaparilla visionary beverage makers like those at Rocky Mountain Soda Co. took an interest in it and developed their own spin on this historic bit of liquid refreshment. Their spin on sarsaparilla incorporates a more enlightened mindset by being vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and containing no GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Some Sarsaparilla Trivia
Before we sign off let's explore some sarsaparilla trivia.
- Sarsaparilla was first served as a medicinal broth ala chicken soup. European doctors picked up this delivery method from Native healers. It wasn't long, however, before those same European doctors, in search of a way to glean more effective treatments from sarsaparilla, began serving it in syrup form.
- Sarsaparilla was one of the earliest and most popular forms of syphilis treatment. As the disease swept through Europe following the return of Columbus and his infected sailors from the New World syphilis treatments were in high demand. Sarsaparilla rode the wave for a while before people realized it didn't actually do much.
- If you grew up watching the Smurfs you know they subsisted primarily on a dish they called "Smurf berries". The creator of the Smurfs, Pierre Culliford, modeled Smurf berries on the fruit of the wild sarsaparilla plant. In Europe, this wasn't an issue, but when the Smurfs became popular in the US he made subtle changes to Smurf berries because he thought American audiences would recognize the plant.
- Sarsaparilla and root beer have more than a passing acquaintance. It is actually sarsaparilla root that provides the ingredient that creates the distinctive foamy head on root beer. So while sarsaparilla and root beer are technically different drinks they share common roots, so to speak.
From preventing flatulence to putting the head on its close cousin root beer there isn't much that sarsaparilla hasn't done, or at least claimed to be able to do. Try our own delicious South Park Sarsaparilla today and discover what all the fuss was about all those years ago.