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I have two childhood memories of sarsaparilla. The first is drinking little glasses of sarsaparilla cordial at the counter of an old-fashioned herbalist's shop on Gateshead High Street. I used to love dropping in to the shop with my dad en route to visit my grandmother; sometimes we'd take out a paper bag containing a couple of liquorice roots and other times I'd come out clutching a stick of colt's foot rock but my favourite thing of all was to stand at the counter and drink sarsaparilla.
The other memory is of the Alpine pop man. Back in the 1970s the Alpine pop man would come rattling down our back street once a fortnight, his little truck filled with bottles of fizzy drink in every colour of the rainbow. If the arrival of the pop man wasn't enough, my favourite flavour was the garishly coloured limeade which can't have gotten its shocking green hue from natural ingredients; I expect the artificial colouring in some of the drinks must have had us kids up a-height. My second favourite was sarsaparilla. As I was the only person in the house who actually liked it my mum would only occasionally agree to buy a bottle of sarsaparilla; I'm still the only person in this household of two that likes sarsaparilla but now it's me that's doing the buying, I can please myself and splash out on a bottle of Mr. Fitzpatrick's Sarsaparilla cordial.
~What is sarsaparilla anyway?~
Sarsaparilla is a soft drink, not entirely dissimilar to root beer, which has an almost medicinal flavour. Originally it was made from the 'Smilax regelii' plant but these days it's just as likely to contain artificial flavourings. It was very popular in the United States in particular in the nineteenth century at which time it was regarded as medicinal drink which might be beneficial for blood disorders and that would promote healthy skin. Fans of musicals might remember Doris Day ordering a 'sasparilly' in the saloon in 'Calamity Jane'; generally in westerns if a character ordered a sarsaparilla drink, rather than the more usual whisky, in the saloon, the viewer was to understand that this was a character to be ridiculed.
~Mr. Fitzpatrick's Sarsaparilla Cordial~
This Sarsaparilla Cordial is one of the drinks in the Mr. Fitzpatrick's Temperance Drinks range. The company has a long heritage, starting out in 1899 in Lancashire. The temperance movement was in its heyday and many towns had temperance bars where non alcoholic drinks were served. The end of prohibition in the United States and after that the end of the Second World War saw a decline in the number of people willing to swear off the demon drink and temperance bars started to close down. Today the only existing temperance bar is Mr. Fitzpatrick's in Rawtenstall and it remains unchanged with jars of medicinal dried herbs on shelves around the room and drinks served from ceramic tap barrels.
The sarsaparilla cordial comes in a 500ml crew cap bottle. Although the cap under the red foil seal is plastic, the overall look of this bottle is quite old fashioned with the bottle being a traditional shape and a super label that has Arts & Crafts style elements and an image of what appears to be Mr. Fitzpatrick's bar in its earliest days.
As this is a cordial it needs to be diluted for drinking and the company's recommendation is one part cordial to five parts water. I always guess but I tend to leave a bit of leeway in order to be able to add more water should I make up the drink too strong. I use both still and sparkling water but I find making this a fizzy drink is more refreshing. There's a suggestion to try this as a hot drink but I have yet to give this a go.
The distinctive sarsaparilla aroma floats out of the bottle when the cap is removed. It reminds me of Dr. Pepper because it has that medicinal element to it (it smells like a mild version of Germolene in all honesty) but it has a more rounded, richer and sweeter aroma.
In the bottle the cordial is a very dark red colour, and when water is added it becomes a brown tinted dark red.
On the label is the somewhat vague description 'A flavoured soft drink cordial with botanical extracts'. The list of ingredients doesn't give much more away either and although there's some additional information on the Mr. Fitzpatrick's website it is quite vague and it doesn't really clarify whether the description just refers to what sarsaparilla is traditionally, or whether the company really does use sarsaparilla root. It certainly tastes very authentic with that slightly woody and medicinal flavour I remember from my childhood. There's a little sweetness but not so much that it's cloying. Although the flavour is very similar to that of root beer, this is much milder and has a much less pronounced aftertaste.
I like to drink this for refreshment on a hot day, or after a long bike ride. I never have it alongside a meal now because I've never been able to find anything it doesn't completely clash with flavour-wise.
The nutritional information has been provided for 100g of cordial which isn't very helpful. It would be more relevant to provide those vital statistics in terms of a typical sized serving made up with water. Still, for those who are interested, there are 63.4g of sugar in 100g of cordial which makes it heavy on sugar. As a result I drink this only occasionally; although I was an odd child that liked unusual flavours, I can't see that many kids going for this which is just as well given the sugar content.
~Where to buy~
If you've been tempted to take a trip down memory lane with Mr. Fitzpatrick's you'll be wanting to know where you can buy this and other products from the range (such as Blood Tonic, Rhubarb & Rosehip, and Dandelion & Burdock).
I bought mine from Glug, a specialist craft beers and drinks shop in Newcastle' Grainger Market but Mr. Fitzpatrick's products can be found nationwide in department store food-halls, independent grocery stores, farm shops and so on. You can enter your location and get a list of local outlets on the company's website. I paid three Pounds odd for my bottle but prices do vary. You can buy directly from the company online at a cost of £4 per bottle. Mainland UK delivery is £6.95 for up to a dozen bottles; you can make up a dozen from any of the flavours available.
This cordial is not cheap but it is very good and so long as you store your opened bottle correctly (in a cool place - by which I presume they mean temperature and not attitude) it'll keep for a good few months.