Food & Drink » Boozehound

Root Beer Booze

Three examples of a complex, herbaceous tradition dating back to the 1700s

by

Root beer alcohol has deep roots: first brewed in the 18th century as a lightly alcoholic tea, then introduced commercially in 1876 by Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires as a nonalcoholic thirst-quencher. The drink boasts a complex, highly varied combination of botanicals--ranging from sarsaparilla to birch bark to dandelion root. Whether you serve it on ice or ladled over vanilla ice cream, root beer booze definitely deserves a spot in your liquor cabinet.

Blackmaker, $17.95

With a distinctive whiff of root beer candies on the nose, Blackmaker is anything but subtle. Though it's the least alcoholic of the three--clocking in at 35 percent ABV--Blackmaker has the harshest alcohol burn on the palate, which it counters with an equally aggressive syrupy sweetness. As one taster put it, "Blackmaker is the root beer version of Fireball." This one's meant to be shot not savored.

Art in the Age: Root, $33.95

With a sleek wooden topper and an illustrated guide to the its certified organic botanicals--including anise, allspice, smoked black tea, wintergreen and birch bark--Root nails the folksy, apothecary aesthetic. Thankfully, it's not just good packaging. The nose boasts complex notes of cardamom and clove that continue to the equally nuanced palate. While one taster crowned it "the American version of Fernet," another called it "oppressively esoteric."

Underground, $17.95

Though not technically labeled "root beer," this "handcrafted herbal spirit" fits comfortably into the category. Bottled by Ogden's Own Distillery in Ogden, Utah, Underground blends 33 herbs and spices, including cassia, angostura, anise, cardamom, gentian, wormwood, mate, guarana, ginseng and molasses. The result is a balanced, lightly sweet libation dubbed "a cross between J├Ąger and root beer," and the panel's favorite.