So, Ontario has finally jumped on the hard root beer bandwagon and we can now head out to the LCBO or The Beer Store and select from 5 different variations on alcoholic root beer. Lucky us!
As someone who has sampled somewhere around 500 different root beer sodas, and many hard root beers, I felt it was my duty to do a taste test comparison of what you can expect from our alcoholic root beer options in Ontario. It’s not that difficult a taste test really, since we only have 5 options to choose from!
First, a bit about Root Beer
Root Beer tends to be a love it / hate it type of drink, and this holds true for the alcohol versions as well. The main ingredients that tend to turn people off are anise (similar to licorice) and wintergreen (a minty kind of taste). Wintergreen often reminds people of toothpaste or medicine. for people who say they hate root beer, find one without wintergreen in it, and you might just change their mind.
Alright, the beauty of root beer is that there is no traditional formula to follow. It literally started as “root” beer. We’re talking Native Americans using tree roots, bark and herbs to create the first real root beers. The first root beer sold commercially was Hires root beer, and if you can find it, it still holds its own to any other mass-produced root beer sodas.
Hard root beer has been around for many years, but only took off recently when Small Town Brewery near Chicago struck a deal with Pabst to distribute their “Not Your Fathers” brand. Now it seems every large US brewer is jumping on that bandwagon, along with some Canadian ones.
Hard Root Beer options in Ontario
A few Ontario brewers have done one-off hard root beers in the past, but things have recently changed and there are now 5 root beer options on the shelves at our Ontario beer and liquor outlets. Interestingly they’re all quite different in terms of their base alcohol and root beer recipes. Some use vodka (or ‘grain neutral spirit’), one uses rum, one uses bierschnapps and another is a good old malt-based beverage.
Dusty Boots Hard Root Beer by Iconic Brewing
5.9%. Ingredients: Carbonated water, malted barley, grain neutral spirit, sugar, natural flavours, hops, phosphoric acid.
This root beer pours a deep amber colour and has a big, fluffy off-white head. Aroma is big sugar, similar to a root beer.
Taste is quite flat and smooth. No rough finish as is common with many hard root beers. Has a slight wintergreen taste too, but not spicy. Overall this is a mild tasting hard root beer.
A frothy alcoholic malt beverage that is above average sweet. While hops are listed in the ingredient list, it must be such a minimal amount, it doesn’t seem to impart any influence on the flavour. This proved to be the easiest drinker of the bunch. It drinks light, despite having the highest alcohol content, and potentially highest sugar content. Beware, this is nasty hangover material!
Distillery Root Beer by Mill Street
5.2%. Ingredients: Carbonated water, sugar, alcohol, caramel colour, vanilla extract, sodium benzoate, natural flavour, acacia gum, sulphites.
This is different from the other alcoholic root beers in that this is a root beer blended with vanilla porter bierschnapps from the Mill Street Distillery.
It pours a dark brown colour with a fizzy off white head that doesn’t last at all. Smells like hard liquor. You can tell there is ‘more’ to this root beer than a malt beverage with flavours added.
To me the aroma is a mix of vanilla, sugar and watered down whiskey. Taste is sweet upfront with an abrupt, dry finish. Boozy alcohol dominates with vanilla and some classic root beer sassafras and vanilla flavours hiding underneath, but it isn’t easy to pick them out.
Not very sweet really. Overall the booziest smelling, most innovative option out there. Probably a love it / hate it taste for most people, even though wintergreen isn’t strong in this one. It’s not exactly your typical root beer flavour profile.
Mad Jack Premium Hard Root Beer by Mad Jack Brewing Company (part of Molson Coors)
5%. Ingredients: Malt liquor, carbonated water, glucose-fructose, artificial and natural flavours.
Brewed by the big guys, the ingredient list is not surprisingly a bit more generic and shady. What natural flavours? Hmm. It’s a premium root beer though, so must be good! Ahh, there is nothing premium about this whatsoever. If they included raw, organic Madagascar vanilla or sassafras tree bark or roots harvested from a sustainable source among their natural flavours I might buy into that claim.
The look of this one is a deep red brown pour, with a low lying head that disappears almost immediately. Aroma is mild. Not too sweet or boozy. Really bland and muted actually.
Malty. You’ll notice the malt sweetness right away but it’s also got some underlying root beer flavours like sassafras, birch and bark tastes. Not spicy, but pretty decent root beer flavouring.
The more you drink this one, the sweeter it gets. This is more traditional tasting than the Mill Street or Dusty Boots options.
You may prefer this over all the other hard root beer options if you enjoy malty beers. It’s quite mellow overall, a bit heavier than Crazy Uncle or Dusty Boots, so still not something you can drink many of.
If you like Not Your Father’s Root Beer from Small Town Brewery (which is not available in Ontario), this is the one hard root beer in Ontario that is closest to it in terms of flavour.
Crazy Uncle All Natural Hard Root Beer by 361 Degrees Inc.
5%. Ingredients: Carbonated filtered water, sugar, vodka, caramel colour, citric acid, natural flavour.
The healthy, all natural option! Ok, not really healthy but at least it doesn’t have the questionable preservatives and artificial additives that some of the others include.
This root beer is a lighter colour than the others. Very flat pour, but a thin layer of head lingers a while.
Nice, appealing vanilla aroma, with that Dr. Pepper type cherry element that root beer sodas sometimes have. Probably a stronger birch flavour to this than sassafras. Taste is quite sweet and smooth. A bit smoother and creamier than Dusty Boots.
Overall pretty decent caramel and root beer ‘spice’ taste. Hard to pick up the wintergreen and licorice flavours but if you challenge your taste buds you’ll pick them up. There is actually a fair bit going on with this one, if you start it ice cold and let it warm up, the flavour profile changes.
This tastes the sweetest of the bunch, but hard to know for sure if it had more sugar or just doesn’t hide it as well. It’s all natural, but I’m sure a night of these would still result in a nasty hangover. As for being on par as a root beer, it does a decent job.
Captain Morgan Spiked Root Beer by Captain Morgan Rum Co.
7%. Ingredients: Carbonated water, rum, glucose-fructose, natural and artificial flavours, colour, citric acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, sodium citrate.
Stretching things a bit here, as this is obviously not made by a brewery. But considering how most of the other hard root beer options are vodka, or other spirit, based I felt this had to be included.
Expect a dark brown pour with almost no head. Aroma is sweet rum. Not much in the way of root beer aroma at all. Taste is pretty smooth and sweet. Sugar is noticeable, the higher strength of 7% isn’t.
A bit of a licorice twist can be detected as well as wintergreen mintiness, so it does have some classic root beer taste profile going on. Overall the most obvious option that doesn’t try too hard to be a root beer. This is a rum beverage with flavouring more than anything else.
If you prefer rum over vodka or bierschnapps then this version of hard root beer may be the one for you.
So there we have it, 5 very different hard root beer options. Considering the vast range of flavours and styles you can find with root beer soda, it was actually a pleasant surprise to experience such different takes on hard root beer as well.
As the hard root beer trends continues, it seems hard ginger beer and other hard “sodas” (such as orange!) are the next wave that is sweeping across the US. I’m not a fan of those flavours, but do hope the root beer trend continues. If someone could make a smooth root beer stout I’d be quite happy.