Sarsaparilla from Lancashire, Lancashire
The temperance movement in Britain began in 1832 when Joseph Livesey in Preston pushed his followers to abstain totally from alcohol – his follower John Turner invented the expression teetotal. Two centuries on and temperance is alive and well still in Lancashire , in Oldham and not so very far away along the Rossendale Valley in Rawtenstall, and sometimes at other spots like Blackburn market.
Rawtenstall , with a strong Methodist tradition, is home to the last temperance bar in the country, Fitzpatrick’s Herbal Health, where sarsaparilla has been made since 1890. They also serve black beer and dandelion and burdock, the latter another wonderful soft drink that for many of those who get to try it puts colas to shame.
Mawson’s sarsaparilla dates back to 1933, when a milkman turned herbalist began making it in his shop, which evolved into a temperance bar (as so many herbalists did). These days Mawson’s in Oldham produces cordials and fizzy versions of various temperance drinks: cream soda; dandelion and burdock; and of course sarsaparilla – which in the local lingo is often referred to as ‘sass ‘n’ soda’.
Sarsaparilla is a trailing vine native to South America, its extract long promoted by herbalists as a blood-purifier and anti-rheumatic, and said to help with skin ailments – though what proof there is for such beliefs is unsure, and Mawson’s are very clear about making no health claims for their drinks. Their sarsaparilla cordial uses that plant along with ginger and liquorice in a drink free from artificial sweeteners.
The flavour of the drink is extremely difficult to describe: like the nicest cough-medicine you got as a child, plus lots of herby hints, and red boiled sweets, with a very gentle undertone of sweet liquorice and perhaps prunes. The dark purply-red cordial – sold in a bottle that nods more towards 1950s American soda fountains than 1900 temperance bars – is mixed with ordinary water, or better with soda water, to make a truly refreshing and interesting soft drink.