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Boot Hill Museum's favorite non-alcoholic drink

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
An almanac put out by a popular manufacturer of Boot Hill Museum's sarsaparilla

It's been a popular item at Boot Hill Museum. It is a non-alcoholic soft drink, but that wasn't always the case.

The origin of the word "sarsaparilla" is from the Spanish words "arzaz," which means bramble, and "parrilla" meaning little vine.

The sarsaparilla plant is a tropical vine native to Central and South America. It grows in swampy forests from the coastal regions of southern and western Mexico to Peru.

It belongs to the genus smilax of the lily family. It has shiny net-veined leaves, prickly stems, small flowers, thick root stalks, and thin roots several feet long. The primary commercial species are Mexican, Honduran, the American spikenard, and the bristly sassafras which makes the true sarsaparilla.

Europeans first tasted the root of sarsaparilla when Spanish explorers brought them from New Spain (Mexico) to Seville between the years 1536-1545. The roots were used in Europe as medicine in the mid 1500s. It was falsely thought to be an “alternative medicine” that improved the body’s metabolism.

As early as 1824, sarsaparilla was considered to be a type of carbonated mead. Mead, which was patented in 1819, is a liquor consisting of fermented honey and water, and often had spices and fruit added.

Sarsaparilla flavors were produced by percolating or steeping the root in a hot solution. No two batches were ever the same as they varied from batch to batch.

Most of the sarsaparilla parented medicines contained from 7-12% alcohol and other ingredients such as a yellow dock, poke root, buckthorn, wintergreen and prickly ash.

The drink which was very popular out west originated in the east around 1840. During Dodge City's early years, the J.C. Ayers and Co. of South Groten, Mass., produced sarsaparilla. The drink was so popular the section of South Groten where Sarsaparilla was manufactured changed its name to Ayers.

At that time it was still considered a proprietary medicine.

The drink known as sarsaparilla in the late 1800s had its main ingredient oil of sassafras, along with sugar and carbonated water. Sass, as it was called in the beverage business, included some alcohol, oil of sweet birch, sarsaparilla root, and flavorings including cinnamon or anise.

These potions claimed to cure everything from headaches to heartaches.

However, the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911, declared sarsaparilla to be “Pharmacologically inert & therapeutically useless.”

Sarsaparilla has evolved into a "soft drink" which tastes much like root beer. Like root beer, it has no caffeine but plenty of sugar. Generally available at Boot Hill Museum in the Long Branch Saloon and the Gift Shop, it is currently out of stock due to COVID-19 and other factors. But it should be back on the shelves in early 2021.