The drink Sarsaparilla is a carbonated drink originally made from the extract from the sarsaparilla root. Today it is flavored with sassafras and birch oils and does not typically contain sarsaparilla root.
Root beer is also flavored with sarsaparilla root but has the additional flavorings from sassafras, anise, burdock, cinnamon, dandelion, ginger, juniper, vanilla and wintergreen, amongst others.
While sarsaparilla essentially is also a 'root beer', going by its definition, the sarsaparilla drink is made from the sarsparilla root alone. The sarsaparilla plant is a vine which is abundantly available in Central America. It's Spanish name zarzaparrilla is derived from the words 'zarza' meaning 'shrub' and 'parrilla' meaning 'little grape vine'. The Central Americans were apparently the first people who came up with the idea of using the extracts of this vine to prepare this beverage. The way they saw it, sarsaparilla had a remarkable medicinal value and there are many uses for sarsparilla. It is still considered to be a good medicine in treating syphilis. The sarsaparilla also gained popularity later as a beverage in the old west. If you remember the Yosemite Sam character, which was loosely based on a guy from the old west, he often mentioned that he wants a 'sasparilly' and that he wants it 'really snappy'! Sarsaparilla, today, is a drink which is made primarily from this plant, without mixing it with anything else. As such, the sarsaparilla root beer recipe contains only one flavoring ingredient: the sarsaparilla itself.
- Not all Sarsparillas are the same. Just like every other plant on earth, it has seemingly adapted to different environments and has been modified by humans. True sarsaparillas are Smilax species ("greenbriars") and grow all over the world.
- Not all Smilax species are called Sarsaparilla however. Mexican sarsaparillas were brought to America at an early date. It was thus more commonly brewed as a soft drink in the West where sassafras is not found. These were most likely Smilax medica and Smilax aristolochiaefolia.
- The Aralia species are more appropriately called Spikenard. Spikenard has been used in many root beers as it is native to the United States. We have one variety here in California called California Spikenard (Aralia californica).
- Another "sarsaparilla" is Indian Sarsaparilla, Hemidesmus indica. This is often sold in bags at home brew suppliers.
- Real sarsaparilla is more acrid than sassafras. The smell is not "root beery" like the obvious smell of sassafras. Sarsaparilla is good, but usually not good enough in taste and odor to stand on its own. It is best mixed with sassafras. Sarsaparilla and spikenard have similar tonic properties.
The "Root Beer" we buy off the shelf today is a drink made from a combination of roots, in tandem with the sarsaparilla, such as cinnamon, anise, burdock, juniper, clove, licorice, ginger, vanilla, wintergreen, etc. depending on the manufacturer's recipe. The root beer comes in several flavors based on the other roots used. Unlike sarsaparilla of course, the root beer uses a combination of different substances to dilute the taste of sarsaparilla which some people may not enjoy. Root beer in essence is an adulterated sarsaparilla since it contains a mix of other ingredients. It has a lighter aftertaste than sarsaparilla. The root beer comes in two varieties, the alcoholic version and the soft drink version.
Compiled from information from RootBeerWorld.com, Buzzle.com, and Yahoo!