Some years ago, my boyfriend and I drove to Lake Tahoe to spend a weekend at his parents’ cabin. On our way, we stopped to pick up the classic winter cabin essentials: the makings of chili and cornbread, pancakes and eggs, coffee, and bourbon—a big ol’ handle of Jim Beam. (I’m a Jim Beam apologist, but that’s a topic for another time.)
It wasn’t until hours later that we realized our grave error: We hadn’t bought anything to mix with the bourbon. Notwithstanding my love for Jim Beam, I wasn’t excited about the prospect of sipping it straight for the next three days. The liquor cabinet held only a disparate collection of spirits that offered no help—Tanqueray, Baileys and Dewar’s—and when we opened the fridge, hoping to find some ginger ale, there was nothing, not even the Diet Pepsi that his parents usually kept on hand.
Necessity is, of course, the mother of invention, and this is perhaps never more true than in the case of someone who really wants a drink. I’ve seen all sorts of heinous alcoholic creations arise when options are limited—a sugar-soaked gloop of lemon and gin combined in a blender; orange soda mixed with Two Buck Chuck; Crystal Light dissolved in vodka. And for the most part, these concoctions merely bridge a gap, their memory willfully suppressed after resources become more abundant.
Sometimes, however, necessity begets something so great that it seems your time of need was meant to be. This was one of those times. In the very back of the top shelf of the fridge, hidden behind three half-full jars of pickles, I spotted something. Four cans of A&W root beer in a neat little row.
And so we settled into the hot tub, fizzing highballs in hand, and I took a tentative first sip. It was nothing like the whiskey gingers that I’d drank for so long. No, it was much, much better. The root beer’s distinctive bite, imparted by sassafras root, helped dampen the bourbon’s sweetness, while its earthy notes brought out more nuanced aromas. There was a hint of anise, as well, reminiscent of a Sazerac, and a strong vanilla flavor that gave it all a lovely creaminess.
The next day, we drove back to the supermarket to pick up more root beer, and we swore we wouldn’t drink bourbon any other way once we returned to San Francisco.
This proved untenable, as bars don’t tend to carry root beer. But I couldn’t unlearn the fact that root beer is a far better mixer for bourbon than ginger ale, and so for the past seven years, I’ve been on a quest to share that.
Skeptical? I would tell you to go make yourself a Bourbon & Root Beer right now, but you may be at work or on a bus or operating heavy machinery (in which case, please stop reading). So instead, I will tell you why root beer is the ideal bourbon mixer.
First, it’s interesting to note that the method of brewing root beer evolved out of the tradition of small beer—low-ABV brews that offered a less perilous alternative to the contaminated water of Medieval Europe but wouldn’t leave everyone sloshed. (Early root beers were at least 2 percent alcoholic.) A teetotaler produced the first commercial root beer, and then there was Prohibition, and thus root beer became, definitively, a soft drink.
Since its origins in the mid-1800s, root beer has fluctuated between being alcoholic or not, and the recent rise in hard root beers suggests it may be swinging back toward booze. However, the mass-produced sugar bombs lining the shelves of your local bodega do nothing to harness the unique flavors of root beer. Eric Sortomme, a self-described root beer gourmet and the founder of the blog GourmetRootBeer, doesn’t mince words about these new malt beverages. “It’s a bastardization of the fine drink that is root beer,” he says.
Though Sortomme himself doesn’t drink—which is true of many root beer aficionados, with root beer’s history having neatly divided its fans into tipplers and teetotalers—he concedes that “if you insist on an alcoholic root beer, either brew it the heritage way or mix a proper root beer with a fine liquor, like bourbon, in a way that enhances the flavor of both.”
Jerry Connor of The American Pub in Philadelphia would tend to agree. After seeing the popularity of root beer on his menu, as well as the explosion of hard root beer, he realized that the spirits industry was missing a major opportunity. “Root beer was kinda standing there over on the side waving its hand,” he says. Not only did it offer a fresh alternative to old-hat mixers like tonic, ginger ale and Coke, it also brought new life to classic liquors. The gingery birch flavor of root beer, says Connor, has made the pub’s bourbon-and-root-beer cocktail a menu staple since being introduced last year.
Around the country, other bartenders are beginning to tap into root beer’s unrealized potential. “Root beer is an amazing mixer!” says Juyoung Kang, the lead bartender of The Dorsey at The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. She praises the “great baking spice notes” that echo and enhance the flavors imparted by whiskey barrels.
Kristin Lozano, the food and beverage manager at The Kimpton Sawyer Hotel in Sacramento, echoes that sentiment. “Root beer is the perfect match for whiskey, especially a high-proof bourbon such as Four Roses Single Barrel,” she says, noting that ginger ale can overpower the unique barrel-aging notes of whiskeys.
Jonathan Howard, the bar lead at Henley in Nashville, also finds root beer superior to more conventional whiskey accompaniments. “Drinks with root beer have far more complexity and richness than just using a common mixer like ginger ale”, he says, citing root beer’s herbaceous quality, vanilla notes and unique viscosity.
These bartenders all use craft root beer for their cocktails and emphasize the importance of choosing one that’s as high-caliber as the whiskey in question. This probably explains why, as someone who gets excited about Jim Beam, I was pretty satisfied with those year-old cans of A&W, but there’s definitely room for upgrades on both sides.
Today’s craft root beers can feature a wide variety of flavors, depending on how they’re brewed: cherry, cinnamon, cloves, molasses, eucalyptus, nutmeg, cinnamon and mint. Given my tastes, I might want to go with Hank’s, a creamy vanilla-forward style that “has a calming effect when mixed with bourbon,” according to Hank’s managing partner Tony Salvatore.
Of course, you may not need to seek out your own craft root beer and mix up a cocktail at home, as whiskey and root beer slowly gains a foothold in the cocktail world. You’ll find a whiskey with Abita root beer at A Bar in Brooklyn, and a bourbon with house-blend root beer at Grand & Ogden in Chicago, to name a couple. As Connor of The American Pub predicts, “The time of root beer as a mixer is just beginning,”
Still, root beer isn’t as ubiquitous as it should be, so give the above recipe a try if you can’t find a root beer cocktail near you. If you love it, join me in continuing to ask bartenders for bourbon with root beer until it becomes a thing. They’ll only look at you weird until they try it themselves.