Location: Los Angeles, CA
Purchased at: Spec’s
Container: 12 oz brown glass bottle
Sold in packs of: Four
Date Reviewed: February 19, 2015
Color: Dark brown
Sweetener: Unbleached cane sugar and caramelized unrefined cane sugar
Nose: Sweet anise and clove, light wintergreen, hint of cinnamon and nutmeg
Fizz: Small bubbles
Flavor notes: Anise, nutmeg, some cinnamon, hint of fruitiness, dark molasses finish
Commentary: Pours with a short head that quickly dissipates. Nose is heavy on the anise, accompanied by clove; the usual wintergreen is left to be a mild undercurrent. Cinnamon and nutmeg also present. The bubbles were small but fairly intense – not surprising given the lack of head – and definitely tingled the tongue, although it was not overly harsh. The flavor starts off big on the anise/licorice taste, which isn’t surprising given the nose, but as I continued to drink the glass it broadened out, revealing more character. Nutmeg was noticeably present, along with some cinnamon; there was also a mild suggestion of fruitiness. The back end started off seeming a bit herbal and bitter, but after a couple minutes I started getting a dark molasses note in the finish that was very pleasant. Not sure why it seemed to take a little adjustment to reveal itself, but there seems to be something in Virgil’s – maybe down to how many different components they prominently include – that causes a shifting flavor profile as you drink it. I was also impressed by the near-total lack of wintergreen in the taste – there’s certainly wintergreen in there, and you can kind of sense it underlining the other flavors, but they’ve managed to do a good job keeping it from taking over like it does with a lot of root beers. The body seemed fairly full, as the soda didn’t taste watery, though I can’t say it tasted as creamy as I was expecting based on the label. It felt more like the sweetness was filling out the body.
Summary: Virgil’s is definitely the most complex and interesting of the root beers I’ve sampled so far. (Huge sample size, I know.) Whyever it happens, the fact that a number of different flavors pass in and out means you’re not having the same drinking experience throughout the bottle, which is particularly good if you’re less of a fan of some of the flavors. (I like anise fine in root beer, but I was initially worried I was just going to be drinking a licorice soda and was happy to find that after a couple sips that stopped being the case. Additionally, that back end shift from an herbal bitterness to a nice molasses sweetness was especially welcome.) It does make the soda a little more of a mixed bag than maybe it should be – you could argue that they should have focused on a single flavor profile rather than jamming so many different things in there to fight for prominence – but it totally works. Managing to get wintergreen to assume a supporting role when it’s usually the root beer ingredient equivalent of a six-year-old who won’t stop jumping in front of your camera was also an impressive feat. Considering that the label promised a “rich and creamy” root beer I’m not sure it totally delivers on that – it is moderately rich, but in more of a sweet, syrupy way. When I see “rich and creamy” I expect a smoother, fuller mouthfeel than what I got (and a head, come to that – how are you going to promise me “rich and creamy” and there’s no dang head?). Overall, though, the taste is there. There are enough things to pick at that I don’t think I can go into the A range (and believe me, I want to start getting there), but I do think we have a new leader in the clubhouse.