“It sounds weird, but it’s really good.” That’s the refrain you’ll hear repeated by those who champion a root beer and absinthe highball at bars, at home, even in ready-to-drink cans.
It’s not clear who first combined these two unlikely bedfellows in the same glass: one of the highest-proof spirits there is, plus a rootsy, super sweet soft drink. Both have long histories. Absinthe dates back to 1789, while the earliest recorded recipe for root beer appeared in 1869; it’s not hard to imagine the two ended up in the same glass at some point along their shared century-plus existence. But within the context of the modern cocktail and spirits renaissance, the trail appears to begin on the West Coast.
In 2007, shortly after the U.S. overturned its long-standing ban on absinthe, St. George Spirits, in Alameda, California, rolled out its own take on American absinthe, called Absinthe Verte. The following year, Ellie Winters, then communications director for the distillery, took a quick break from a poker game with industry friends: Faced with a few bottles of St. George absinthe and an array of mixers, including root beer, she poured a little of each in the same cup, inadvertently creating the Root of All Evil, a drink now memorialized on the distillery’s website.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment thing,” recalls Winters, who, at the time, was dating St. George master distiller Lance Winters. (They are now married.) “It was an Earl of Sandwich situation: I wanted a drink, I wanted to keep my head relatively clear for the poker game, I thought the flavors would work. There wasn’t a lot more thought put into that.”
With a 1:2 ratio of absinthe to root beer, the result is admittedly “swampy and foreboding-looking,” she says, as the absinthe louches the drink to a pearlescent gray. But the drink picked up momentum anyway. “Not only were we serving the Root of All Evil among industry friends at poker games starting in 2008 and to various distillery guests thereafter,” says Ellie, “but we also poured it at events far and wide for many years,” including the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in 2012 and Portland Cocktail Week in 2013.
The drink also popped up on cocktail menus at a few Bay Area bars, including Blackbird and Rock Bar. “While the idea of absinthe and root beer together may seem truly bizarre at first blush, it makes tons of sense when you dive deep,” Lance explains. The key, he says, is “a really good root beer.” His picks include bottles from Sprecher Brewing Co. and Olde Rhode Island: “They both have a bright punch of wintergreen that complements the absinthe.”
Elsewhere, Alberta, Canada–based bartender Warren Johnston created his own version of the drink, the Above Average Absinthe + Root Beer (his consulting company is called Above Average Drinks), stretching the ratio to about 1:4, absinthe to root beer, brightened with a twist of lemon peel. He likens root beer to a nonalcoholic amaro, which is naturally harmonious with absinthe’s herbaceous, licorice-like character, he says.
He arrived at his version when trying to make a drink for his mother-in-law, circa 2014 or 2015, he says. “She always loved absinthe frappés,” he recalls, and had a fondness for Paralyzers, which are similar to White Russians but made with the addition of cola. “I wanted something more refined, and which didn’t use milk.” Inspiration hit when he saw a social media post by New York bartender Sother Teague extolling the virtues of Suze and Mountain Dew. “That launched me down the rabbit hole of [pairing] other highbrow/lowbrow ingredients that are awesome, like Ramazzotti and Dr Pepper,” says Johnston. Eventually, he landed on absinthe and root beer.
He sees the drink’s murky appearance as a plus: The “white, ghostly contribution from the absinthe” evokes a milky drink, which defies expectations. He often pours the combo at events as a way to coax reluctant absinthe drinkers to try the spirit. It’s “unexpectedly delicious,” he says, and those who enjoy it are less intimidated going forward.
Today, the combo can even be found on tap at Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Happy Accidents, where it features housemade absinthe. And, as with most highballs these days, a ready-to-drink canned option is never far away. In December 2022, the Heart Distillery in Windsor, Colorado, which had been serving the highball at its taproom since opening in 2019, launched its Green Fairy Rootbeer. “The anise works well with the sarsaparilla found in root beer,” says head distiller Zach Weakland. The proportion for both the taproom and canned versions is 1:5, absinthe to root beer. At that ratio, it doesn’t louche or look murky, says Weakland.
And here comes that familiar refrain. “It sounds weird but good,” Weakland insists. “Don’t be hesitant to try it; you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”