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Sarsaparilla was popular in the United States in the 19th century. According to advertisements for patent medicines of the period, it was considered to be a remedy for skin and blood problems. Ruth Tobias notes that it evokes images of "languid belles and parched cowboys." In Hollywood westerns from the 1930s to the 1950s, ordering sarsaparilla in a saloon (instead of whiskey) is often met with mockery by the manly cowboys nearby. Sarsaparilla drinks feature widely in American popular culture, particularly in works related to the American West. In the 1957-1961 ABC western television series, Sugarfoot, the title character, Tom Brewster, played by Will Hutchins, is a teetotaler who orders sarsaparilla "with a dash of cherry" whenever he enters a saloon.
Sarsaparilla is not readily available in most countries, although many pubs and most major supermarket chains in the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Australia stock sarsaparilla-flavored soft drinks, and sarsaparilla remains available in the United Kingdom as a legacy of the Temperance movement. Australian sarsaparilla has a different flavor from American root beer or sarsaparilla. Bundaberg brews sarsaparilla from "real sarsaparilla root, licorice root, vanilla beans and molasses."
Sarsi is a sarsaparilla-based drink popular in Asia.
Sarsaparilla is produced on a small scale in the United Kingdom. Baldwin's produces a Sarsaparilla Cordial in the United Kingdom, and have done since 1844. It is produced in Walworth Road, London and is readily available in Pie & Mash shops in the East End of London, where it is popular, as well as being available in the Supermarket Tesco. In the north of England, sarsaparilla is still produced by Fitzpatrick's, Britain's last Temperance bar, indicating its previous importance to the temperance movement there.
U.S. classic sarsaparilla was not made from the extract of the sarsaparilla plant, a tropical vine distantly related to the lily. It was originally made from a blend of birch oil and sassafras, the dried root bark of the sassafras tree. Sassafras was widely used as a home remedy in the nineteenth century – taken in sufficient doses, it induces sweating, which some people thought had health benefits. Sarsaparilla apparently made its debut as a patent medicine, an easy-to-take form of sassafras, much as Coca-Cola (then an easy-to-take form of cocaine) was first marketed in 1885 as a remedy for hangovers, headaches and morphine addiction. Besides the effects of the ingredients, sodas were popular in the United States at the time, due to the belief that carbonated water had health benefits.
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