Root beer is a familiar flavor, and is frequently cited as a tasting note for bourbons and ryes. It has positive associations for most people who enjoy its sweet, smooth, spicy flavors, and evokes memories of root beer floats from our childhoods, of wiping the creamy foam away from our lips and playfully testing the buoyancy of that shrinking scoop of ice cream in the glass with our jabbing straws.
The reason why root beer works as such a generous descriptor for whiskey is the spectrum of flavor across root beer types. Easily confused with sarsaparilla, which is traditionally made from the sarsaparilla vine, root beer was originally made from the roots of the sassafras plant. This contains a natural compound called safrole, or 4–allyl–1,2–methylenedioxy–benzene, which has a chemical structure found to be carcinogenic. Since the 1960s, the Food and Drug Administration has banned its use as an ingredient in food and beverage production, so these days root beer is no longer made with sassafras root.
Contemporary root beer can contain a mixture of natural and artificial flavors. The more familiar flavorings include vanilla, licorice, wintergreen, spices like anise and cinnamon, and sweeteners ranging from honey to molasses and others derived from cane sugar. Whether you favor popping open a local craft root beer or a can from one of the big brands, your palate will confirm your preference for root beers with different levels of spiciness and carbonation, while also gauging your tolerance for sweetness.
Root beer flavors found in bourbon and rye arise from the grains in the mashbill combined with the flavor impact of maturation. Rye and high-rye bourbons often bring plenty of spiciness to the table, delivering aromas and flavors of spearmint or peppermint. Depending on the toasting and charring levels of its new American oak barrels, bourbon takes on vanilla and other sweet notes from the toasted wood sugars, while the char can give a whiskey more robust earthy, licorice, and peppery notes. In scotch, root beer flavors arise periodically but it’s usually dependent on the length of maturation, the type of cask, and its previous contents. With neither one chemical compound nor one stage of distillery production responsible, root beer is a safe bet that covers both sweetness and spice if you’re rooting around for a handy taste descriptor. The only thing bourbon and rye can’t match in root beer is the bubbles—they just don’t have the same fizziology.
Root Awakening: Choose a whisky with root beer notes to float your boat
Sweet vanilla—Jefferson’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
Vanilla latte, peppermint, chocolate chip, root beer spices
Wintergreen—Journeyman Distillery Last Feather Rye
Earthy, mint, chocolate, cola, black pepper
Spicy—Arbikie Highland Rye 1794
Cinnamon, allspice, caramel popcorn, cocoa