Wine & spirits: For the love of licorice
Licorice is actually the collective descriptor for a whole family of flavours that includes mild and delicate fennel, aromatic and bitter licorice root, and sweet and pungent anise. It's a flavour that has a long and impressive past. It appears in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek literature and Roman art -- it was a favourite of many ancient leaders, including King Tut, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Over the centuries, warriors have quenched their thirst with it while marching, and venerable Chinese Buddhist sages have valued it for its healing properties.
My own reasons for enjoying licorice have always been strictly hedonistic. Licorice has a flavour that really has genuine oomph, whether savoured in one of its plentiful solid forms, slipped into an adventurous recipe or sipped as an exotic beverage.
Most old-world drinkers prefer the classic aperitif, wherein an amber, green or yellow liqueur (pastis/Pernod) turns milky when water and ice are added. A few will brave the clear, viscous, hard-core tipple (arak/ouzo/raki) in straight sips with plenty of food. North Americans, with their insatiable sweet tooth, flock to the sugary postprandial liqueur (sambuca) that comes in different versions: it's common in clear, bold in basic black, and absolutely ravishing in ruby red.
So love it or hate it, prepare to meet your gustatory nirvana -- or not!
A licorice lexicon
The original anise- and herb-flavoured liqueur of days gone by contained the toxic, delirium-inducing plant wormwood; hence, the proverbial la fée verte, or "green fairy" name. Modern versions have high alcohol but a negligible dose of the hallucinogen. An ounce of liquor is served in a six-ounce glass. A lump of sugar is placed on a specially designed slotted spoon over top, then ice-cold water is drizzled slowly through the sugar into the drink.
A clear, sweet liqueur served straight as a digestif or in cocktails.
A fiery, colourless, unsweetened liqueur widely produced in the Middle East. It's commonly diluted with water and served with mezes or small appetizer plates.
A bright yellow, delicately flavoured anise liqueur, heavily sweetened and flavoured with vanilla and herbs. It may be taken straight as a digestif or on ice, but more often is used in cocktails.
A "child" of raki, it differs from the original by being produced from distilled whole grapes or raisins rather than from grape pomace. Ouzo is flavoured with star anise (pictured), but producers may use many other herbs (angelica root, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coriander, fennel, lime blossom, mint, nutmeg) in an attempt to give their brand a unique twist.
A generic term for any alcoholic beverage created by the maceration of herbs in alcohol and then sweetened. It may be flavoured with anise or licorice root and other herbs. There are many brands, of which the best known is Ricard Pastis.
A yellowish or emerald green, licorice-flavoured liqueur similar to absinthe but with a lower alcohol content and lighter flavours.
Originally produced like grappa, from distilled grape pomace (today, it's made from fresh or dried grapes, or a variety of alcohols, including that from molasses, sugar beet, etc.). The spirit is sweetened and flavoured with anise seeds.
A rich, sweet Italian liqueur that combines the flavours of anise and elderberry. It's produced in clear, black and red versions.