Bourbon and cola is classic. Bourbon and ginger ale: same deal. But bourbon and root beer does not receive the attention it deserves. The fizzy soda’s distinctive bite, imparted by sassafras root, helps dampen bourbon’s sweetness, while the soda’s earthy notes bring out more nuanced aromas. There’s a hint of anise as well, reminiscent of a Sazerac, and a strong vanilla flavor that gives it all a lovely creaminess.
Considering root beer’s history, it is a natural addition to spirits. 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 its imbibers sloshed. (Early root beers were at least 2% alcoholic.) A teetotaler produced the first commercial root beer, and then there was Prohibition, and thus root beer became, definitively, a soft drink.
Around the country, 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, a bartender and consultant in Northern California, says that root beer is the perfect match for whiskey, especially a high-proof bourbon. And Nashville bartender Jonathan Howard 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.
Still, root beer isn’t as ubiquitous as it should be, so give this recipe a try if you can’t find a root beer cocktail near you. If you love it, join the charge in asking bartenders for bourbon with root beer until it becomes a common option. They’ll only look at you weird until they try it themselves.
2 ounces bourbon
6 ounces root beer, chilled
Fill a Collins glass with ice and add the bourbon.
Top with the root beer, and stir slowly to combine.
Serve with a straw.