Dave Fox

Liquor-ish Licorice

Anise-Laced Alcohols Offer Summer Refreshment

By Dave Fox

Summer is the season when people in Mediterranean countries seek relief from the heat with a refreshing glass of a licorice-flavored beverage. Greece, Turkey, Italy, and France are among the countries that like to cool down with anise-spiked liquors.

Greeks are fanatically proud of their national beverage, Ouzo. The base product is a powerful alcohol made from fermented grape skins. Once distilled, it's flavored with licorice and similar herbs such as anise and fennel. Other herbs, including coriander, cloves, and mint, are sometimes added to give it a unique personality. The final product is boiled in a copper still, cooled, and then stored for several months before it's diluted to a drinkable alcohol content of 40 percent.

Nobody knows when Ouzo was first concocted, but it is believed to have existed in ancient Greece. It's usually consumed as an aperitif, though it has found its way into a handful of cocktails.

In Turkey, the national drink is raki, a beverage that takes its name from the Arabic word for juice. Different fruits are fermented in different regions of Turkey to make raki. Grapes, figs, and plums are most common. Like Ouzo, raki is flavored with assorted herbs and spices, especially anise.

There are several ways to drink raki — straight, on the rocks, with a water chaser, or simply diluted with water. Turks call raki "lion's milk" because, like Ouzo, it develops a milky-white color when mixed with water.

This sudden change in color, from clear to opaque white, is a fun-to-watch mystery to many. It's the anise that causes this transformation. In strong alcohol, anise oil is clear. As soon as the alcohol is diluted with water, the essential oils crystalize so that you can no longer see through them and the color turns white.

Italians drink Sambuca, a slightly sweeter beverage. In addition to licorice or anise, elderberry is a key ingredient in this beverage; in fact, "sambuca" is the Latin word for elderberry. Sambuca is usually consumed as an after-dinner drink. Traditionally, it's served with three roasted coffee beans floating on top — a symbol for romance. To add spark to their evenings, Italians sometimes light their Sambuca on fire for a moment, and then extinguish the flame before drinking it. Galliano is another Italian licorice liquor. It's enhanced with flowers and vanilla.

The French call Pastis "the milk of Provence." It is one of several French variations, along with Pernod and Ricard. These drinks have been around for several centuries. They gained popularity in the early 20th century after their forerunner, absinthe, was outlawed.

While all of the above drinks are clear or yellow in color, they all taste like black licorice. Farther north, Finns and Scandinavians drink a homemade variation that is the true color of licorice. Salt licorice, a pungent hard candy that's especially popular in Finland, is crushed and poured into a bottle of vodka. The candy is left to dissolve for several days, until the licorice flavor overrides the vodka taste. This licorice vodka is sweeter than its lighter-colored counterparts. It tastes misleadingly like candy, and it's easy to forget how strong it is... until you wake up the next day.

© Copyright Dave Fox