When it comes to classic highball cocktails, there’s a perfect pairing for basically every kind of soda: Classic rum and Coke, 7-Up and whiskey (aka the “7 and 7”), whiskey and ginger ale, tequila and Squirt or just a tipple of scotch with a splash of plain soda.
Those are just the start, of course — a highball is as versatile as it is simple, after all. Yet for some reason, one distinctly historic American soda has never won favor as much of a mixer. You would think that, given its rich blend of herbs and spices, old fashioned root beer would hold more weight on the cocktail pantheon. Alas, it’s been relegated to the soda fountain and ice-cream floats for far too long.
I think it’s time, though, that root beer joined the cocktail party for good, via a proper celebration of the earthy, indelible flavor it brings to any drink. The key here is that, if you’re going to make a root-beer forward highball, it’s gotta be good root beer. And although I grew up drinking Barq’s and A&W, I would recommend the more intense, idiosyncratic flavor profiles of “craft” soda brands like Virgil’s and Dad’s. For the purposes of a taste test, I picked up a bottle of each, plus another from lauded New York City brand Boylan. (If you’re down for a hands-on project, you can even make your own root beer syrup at home.)
Off the bat, it was obvious that all three of the sodas I picked out had very different interpretations on what defines “root beer.” Inventor Charles Hires may have perfected his own blend of 25 ingredients when he first debuted the drink, but there’s never been a singular recipe in circulation in the 140 years since. A sip of the Boylan tasted of wintergreen mint and lots of black licorice, with only mild sweetness and a lean mineral edge. Virgil’s, meanwhile, swung the opposite way with loads of cherry, allspice and applewood — syrupy and almost unrecognizable as root beer. In the center was Dad’s, featuring a classic vanilla palate, a creamy body and a nice amount of fizz.
With the taste test complete, I settled on two base spirits: Gin, which would play nicely with the floral effervescence of the Boylan soda, and gold rum to pair with the more rounded Dad’s. As with most highballs, a hit of fresh citrus can do wonders; I went for a squeeze of lemon in the gin drink, and nearly a full ounce of lime juice for the rum. Root beer is strong enough to hold its own against other interesting flavors, so I’d also recommend experimenting with adding bitters, be it orange, Angostura or, I dunno, chocolate mole.
What results is surprising, at least to me: A cocktail that recalls childhood birthday parties but also elevates the spirit within — especially when blended with citrus, the drink starts to taste less distinctly like root beer and more like its own organic creation. The possibilities here are endless, especially if you start getting creative with adding other homemade syrups to a root beer highball.
Would I prefer to use a mortar and pestle to grind up sarsaparilla, powdered caramel and a fuckload of spices to make a bespoke root beer cocktail, like Tokyo’s brilliant Hiroyasu Kayama does? Yes, absolutely. But do I really have the will to do that when I can just pour hipster root beer and booze into a glass with ice? No, not really!
There’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple, and the soda highball deserves merit as a legitimate cocktail, even if they trigger memories of frat parties and low-budget Saturday night pregames. The difference is using a spirit with real character, as well as a good soda made from real cane sugar — and I can’t think of a more interesting varietal than root beer to play that role.