Like a lot of people, my introduction to sarsaparilla was various American Western movies and television programs. Basically, if a character ordered this (soft) drink instead of whiskey, or at least another kind of alcoholic beverage, then they were probably (soft) cowards. Or, to use a vulgar term, any guy who drank sarsaparilla was probably a pussy.
As it turns out, tracing the history and details of this drink is a little confusing. It was undeniably popular in the 19th century, especially in the U.S., or in places that would eventually become U.S. states. It was imbibed partly as a soft drink, and partly as a type of patent medicine. Sarsaparilla was thought to be good for treating blood and skin ailments. And, also, perhaps ironically given its reputation, it was believed to help combat venereal infections. (Almost all of these patent medicines were useless, the "snake oil" concoctions of the day.)
Now we get to the issue of what sarsaparilla really is. The traditional drink was made from birch oil and the dried bark of the sassafras tree. (The latter was also a main flavoring agent of root beer.) However, over the years what constituted the drink changed greatly. In 1960 the FDA in the U.S. banned the use of sassafras, since evidence suggests that it may be a carcinogen. (It's also used, illegally, of course, in the production of the drugs MDA and MDMA.) So modern versions of the drink use something else. Specifically, a relative of the lily plant, the sarsaparilla vine. So although the name didn't change, the actual main ingredient did change, and made the drink's name more botanically accurate decades after its invention. And although it's not as popular as in its 19th century heyday, the new version of the beverage is consumed around the world, most notably in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
The sarsaparilla I had was made by Orca Beverage Soda Works, out of Mukilteo, Washington. This is a company which specializes in retro soft drinks. They've reintroduced old classics such as Goody, Hippo Size, Dragon Trail, Red Arrow, Bedford's, Dad's, et. al. Even Lemmy, which doesn't actually have anything to do with the late, lamented Motorhead frontman. Orca was founded in the 1980's by Mike Bourgeois, whose name makes him sound like a member of some 1980's political punk band. The company also manufactures Krazy Kritters (a vitamin drink for kids which comes in fun animal-shaped containers), and, bizarrely, old timey, soft drink-themed thermometers. I've already unknowingly raved about one of their products, the awesome diet ginger beer called Cock 'n Bull (see May 20, 2017 post).
Anyway, the drink I had was called Earp's, to complete the Western theme, I suppose. A rendition of, presumably, Wyatt Earp was on the label. I rechecked the ingredient list, and saw no sign that they utilized the taboo sassafras bark flavoring. So this is the modern, inauthentic-to-some version. It was a dark brown color, and smelled like birch beer. The taste was also like a mild birch beer, or a root beer. These two aren't my favorite soft drink flavor, but the Earp's sarsaparilla was pretty good. Not great like the Cock 'n Bull ginger beer, but solid. If you enjoy birch/root beers you'll probably like this one, too. Although I guess if you do drink it, in certain circles you'll be running the risk of having your friends mock you and call you a "wuss" or the like. It would be interesting to compare this version of the drink with "real" sassafras bark-flavored sarsaparilla, but I guess I'll have to break the law or travel to another country to attempt this.