Here's What Gives Root Beer Its Unique Flavor

Back in the good old days — when water wasn't always safe to drink — people drank beer, since the brewing process rendered it safer to drink. But, there are hours during the day when drinking intoxicating beverages isn't ideal, and root beer's origins were created as a nonalcoholic alternative to beer, according to Portable Press. The beverage was traditionally flavored with sarsaparilla root and sassafras root, ingredients that BlackTailNYC describes as refreshing, minty, and bitter, noting that sweeteners were used to balance the bitterness.

It turns out that safrole, the oil that's derived from sassafras and sarsaparilla, is a carcinogen and has been banned by the FDA. On an interesting but unrelated note, safrole is also used in the illegal manufacture of the drug MDMA or ecstasy. While it is possible to source sassafras extract that doesn't contain safrole, most modern-day root beer producers use flavorings that don't contain any sarsaparilla or sassafras. So what does give us that characteristic root beer flavor we know and love today?

It's an unexpected combination of flavors

Most root beers produced today are flavored primarily with a combination of vanilla and wintergreen, along with small amounts of ginger, licorice, anise, juniper berries, and dandelion, explains Portable Press. To this list of flavorings, BlackTailNYC adds cherry tree bark and nutmeg. Delosi Labs sells a root beer flavoring with many of the above components and adds notes of cinnamon and cane sugar.

Each brand of root beer's flavoring will vary slightly, differentiating one brand from another. If you're curious, set up your own taste test to find your favorite. With all these complex flavors layered to create the taste we know as "root beer," it's no wonder that vanilla ice cream is such a perfect foil. The root beer float is a perfect way to experience this traditional beverage in a modern way. Or, if you're looking for a drink with more punch, you can try experimenting with root beer in a craft cocktail.