The first people to sell it in Tasmania called it “The great American beverage”. So what’s sarsaparilla doing in a timeline of Australian food? Well, although its popularity has waned in its native land, it still has enough fans in Australia to prompt strenuous online debate about the best brands. Particularly popular in Queensland, sarsaparilla is an “old school” soft drink and it has a long history in this country.
Sarsparilla root has an even longer history, being used as a herbal medicine since ancient times. The Smilax genus has varieties native to many countries including Australia. The local version was brewed into “sweet tea” by early colonists, although the variety most commonly used for medicine came from Central America. It was supposed to cure everything from syphilis to arthritis and cancer. In the early 19th century, sarsaparilla root was advertised by colonial pharmacies alongside other herbs, remedies, cordials and essential oils.
Sarsaparilla first appeared as a drink in American drugstores where the syrup was mixed with fizzy water from the soda fountain. Like the original Coca-Cola syrup, it was deemed to be a tonic with health-giving properties. Enterprising operators began adding other flavourings such as caramel and vanilla to improve the flavour and sarsaparilla was on its way to becoming a popular bottled drink.
In 1854, notices appeared in Melbourne newspapers offering “aerated sarsparilla”, the first time the fizzy drink was advertised in Australia. It was being promoted by George Raistrick, of Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne). Raistrick’s advertisement announced:
The undersigned, the original introducer of Aerated Sarsaparilla into these colonies, and last year manufacturer of Cordials for two of the leading houses in this city, begs to intimate that he has commenced business on his own account, and trusts by assiduity, strict integrity, and the production of first rate articles, to merit the support of an intelligent rising community.
The same year, Armstrong and Robertson of Hobart Town claimed to have secured the services of “the original introducer (into the southern hemisphere) of the highly and deservedly extolled beverage”. Before long, nearly every major town in Australia had its local manufacturer of aerated waters, many of which included sarsaparilla in their ranges.
While the drink is less popular today than it was in its early years, or even in the 1950s and ’60s, it has its adherents. Queensland makers include Bundaberg, Crows Nest Soft Drinks and Wimmer’s, which traces its history back to 1887 when Alfred and Frank Wimmer arrived with a recipe from Germany. Kirks was founded in Queensland and still sees that state as its biggest market for its “Big Sars”. In South Australia, Bickfords seemed to have dropped it from their range. In Victoria, River Port in Echuca makes the extra-strong Double Sarsaparilla. And there are others.
The Sarsaparilla Spider (with a scoop of icecream) is still a popular drink in some quarters, while there are those who like to get creative by adding alcohol – vodka, rum or tequila, take your pick.