Back in 1898, Harper's Weekly concerned about the latest craze. "It is pleasant to be assured by a circular and a collection of handbills that the Woman's Christian Temperance Union has taken up the fight again root beer, and intends to track that enemy of mankind to its lair and smoke it out." Harper's worried that root beer contained alcohol and, thus, had addictive properties. They allowed, however, that readers "may not have noticed that root beer has this peculiarity, but they may be able to detect it if they continue to experiment."
One can only imagine, more than a century later, what those skirted teetotalers would make of the latest trend: boozy root beer. For what is, frankly, a niche beverage, alcoholic root beer seems to be having a moment. It’s been written up widely, including in Time, Bloomberg News, the Boston Globe, and Eater.
Alcoholic root beer has been available for mass consumption only for a couple of years, but now looks to be its moment. (More traditional root beer gained popularity in the 18th century. Well into the next century, it was credited, apparently, with healing properties.) The big names, at the moment, are Sprecher and Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer.
According to Fortune, Not Your Father’s Root Beer has had sales of $7.2 million from the beginning of this year through mid-June. (Some perspective on this, from Fortune: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale boasted nearly $59 million in sales during the same period.) Small Town’s brew, which hasan ABV of 5%, has been around since 2013. It became so popular, the Wauconda, Ill. brewery recently partnered with Pabst Brewing, which will give it national distribution.
The boozy root beer craze is definitely being felt on the retail side. "I always felt there was a market for alcoholic sodas," John Nese, long-time proprietor of Galco's Old World Grocery, said recently. "I'd seen it and thought, 'Gee that’s a really interesting concept.' Everyone starts off drinking soda pop and transfers a beer. An alcoholic soft drink would be a good transition." Nese said alcoholic root beer became available about two years ago, but only recently has it been intensely sought after. (He sells four or five cases a week.) "The demand has way outstripped the supply."
Sprecher's Hard Root Beer perhaps owes their success, in part, to nostalgia. It is, drinkers say, reminiscent of Hires—the grandaddy of root beers. Whereas Berghoff’s Rowdy Root Beer, for example, has a more modern taste. With a 6.6% APV, it’s still got the sweetness of a root beer. So sweet, in fact, that using for a float might be more of a necessity than an option.
From there, we venture up market. I'm keen on Forbidden Root, which is basically a beer with root beer characteristics. The marketing materials say it harkens back to "that lost era" when root beer "was something far Nobler." Well, maybe, but it's subtle and delicious and leaves a pleasing aroma in your nose.
And then, finally, there are the root beers that don’t seem like root beers at all. Steven Grasse, founder of Quaker City Mercantile and creator of Hendrick's Gin, recently founded Art In the Age Spirits. One of their offerings is Root, which is considerably more alcoholic than the standard fare—80 proof. Created five years ago, it's basically the ur-root beer, a liquor whose recipe is based on pre-Temperance root tea (which is what Charles Hires wanted to call root beer). "It's the original hard root beer," said Grasse. "It's triple-X hard!"
The key difference in the recipes, noted Grasse, is the absence of sassafras. "It's a classified carcinogen," he said. "Otherwise, it's historically accurate and identical."
Grasse is careful to differentiate his product from his competitors, pointing out that with many other boozy root beers, "there is no craft in how that is made. None," he said. "It's taking neutral malt beverage, and putting synthetic flavors in it. That's all it is. Like making a Twinkie."
One salient question about boozy root beer: Can it get you woozy? The short answer is: Yes, enough, I should think, to provoke the ire of the Temperance ladies. The current offerings should do the trick, but you can also wait for Not Your Father's to roll out beers with ABVs of 11% and 20%, respectively.
All Grown Up
- 1.5 oz Stoli Vanilla Vodka
- .5 oz. Grand Marnier
- Chilled 4 oz. Rowdy Root Beer
- Pour all ingredients into a Collins glass on the rocks, stir, and top with canned whip cream.
- 2 parts ROOT
- 8 parts old fashioned root beer
- 1 scoop vanilla bean ice cream
- shaved nutmeg or cinnamon
- Add ROOT to a large tumbler or hurricane glass. Fill almost to the top with root beer.
- Gently float one scoop of ice cream over the soda.
- Top with freshly shaved nutmeg or cinnamon.