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Anise Flavored Liqueurs
Anise liqueurs are indigenous to Greece, Asia and the Middle East. The aromatic seed of the herb Pimpinella anisum is found throughout the nations that rim the Mediterranean Sea, in the fields, in local foods and, perhaps most ot all, in the drinks that form so important a part of Mediterranean life.
In southern France sunny afternoons are spent languishing on the terrace ot the local café, lazily watering down a half-emptied glass of pastis with more water, diluting the spirit but extending the experience.
Italian feast days are begun as less formal dinners are ended, with short glasses of sweet sambuca liqueur, inevitably accented with a few coffee beans.
In Greece, family and friends gather at the ouzeri, or ouzo bar, for meals composed entirely of mezes, the Greek version of tapas, always accompanied by cool ouzo. And the Lebanese have even built a mythology around their ubiquitous arak, making the outrageous claim that one drink will double the alcoholic potency of anything drunk after it, but only if the arak is taken without food. Spain has its chinchon; Turkey its raki; and a multitude of Middle Eastern countries have their own interpretations of arak, sometimes spelled arrack. If it touches the sea and the culture permits consumption of alcohol, each Mediterranean nation boasts an anise spirit all its own.
Regional Differences of Anise Liqueurs
When you look at the culinary proficiency of these same countries, and the way in which their citizens universally love to eat, the appearance of anise in their regional drinks begins to make sense.
Praised for years as a stomach-settling herb, anise is suspected to have been used to flavor alcohols for longer than history has been recorded. That it so perfectly complements the olive oils, cheeses, garlic and other pungent tastes of the Mediterranean is an added bonus.
The anise spirit that is probably most familiar to North Americans is also the one most dissmilar to its Mediterranean brethren, Italian sambuca. What makes sambuca unusual is that following distillation (from anise and various botanicals), it is heavily sweetened. This suits the liqueur well for its typical role, enjoyed in or alongside an after-dinner espresso. On special occasions, though, sambuca assumes a special role — in Italy, momentous gatherings such as weddings and Christmas celebrations always start with a welcoming drink, normally sambuca. This tradition provides one explanation for the coffee connection. In the old, agrarian days coffee was a precious commodity and so the number of beans your host put in your glass reflected the esteem in which you were held.
Greece has its own tradition for its anise-flavored eau-devie, ouzo. Like arak in nearby Lebanon, the appearance of a bottle of ouzo at a Greek table is a sure indicator that food cannot be far behind, as on inevitably accompanies the other. And unlike the undiluted sambuca, both ouzo and arak are usually served with water, thereby creating a gently refreshing, food friendly drink that is quite at odds with the ouzo shooters so common in North America. All three of ouzo, arak and the Turkish raki are distilled from the leftovers of vinication — grape seeds, stems, skins and the like.
Ouzo is said to have originated some time around 1889 in Tirnavos, a northeastern Greek town renowned for its spirits and its silks. Ouzos’s life began when one particularly smooth, anise-sented version of the spirit was decreed to be “as good as USO Massalias,” the high-end silk sold at market in Marseille. USO was soon corrupted to ouzo and a new drink was born. The connection is apt. Those Marseille-bound silk merchants may well have been themselves inspired by their own anise spirit, absinthe, the famous green Muse of France and precursor to the popular Provençal pastis.
But while pastis can truthfully be said to be of the same family tree as the wormwood flavoured absinthe, the trail connecting the two drinks is a winding one. Outlawed in France in 1915, the direct descendant of absinthe was the northern drink, Pernod, which debuted six years before pastis in 1926. Although the northern and the southern spirits are frequently misclassified in the same category, they are actually quite different beverages. More intensely aromatic than Pernod, ouzo or arak, pastis is commonly flavoured with not only anise, but a host of other herbs and spices. These can include everything from nutmeg to cardamom, white pepper to the South American tonka bean. Some brands even eschew ordinary anise in favour of the more exotic star anise from Asia.
Regardless of ingredients or brand, though, there is only one way to drink pastis: diluted at least five to one with cold water and savored over a long, long time. Such is the popularity of pastis that it is possible to step into a café in France and be immediately engulfed in the aroma of spice licorice and anise. And for the aficionado, that is all it takes to know that you have arrived.
Sambuca comes in two hues,: clear and block. (The Original is clear; the popular ebony versions are more recent arrivals.) Contrary to the mythology surrounding the drink, the coffee beans are optional and the flaming of the spirit purely on affectation. Ramozzotti Sambuca and Luxardo Sambuca dei Cesari are both clear and forcefully anise-scented and flavored, with luxardo being the rounder and slightly sweeter of the two. In the black category, Opal Nero carries an alluring elegance, white the Luxardo Possione Nera is similar to its clear cousin but more herbal. Ramazzotti Black, with its exotic, turquoise-tinted colour has a drier, slightly spicy body.
Diluted with water at a ratio of about four to one, as it should be, Ouzo Tirnavou displays an intriguingly peanutty aroma and a complex, dryish flavour with nutty, herbal, anise notes. Ouzo 12 , a best-selling brand in Greece, has a more floral bouquet and flavour and a slight sweetness on the finish.
At 50% alcohol, arak is the most potent of the anise spirits and its taste reflects its strength. Best enjoyed diluted, as ouzo or pastis, the Gantous & Abou Road Arak of Lebanon is herbal and grassy with anise on the nose and pepper in the body. The softer Kazan Arak is also much fruitier, with on aroma and flavour that speak of anise and whisper of grappa.
The most popular pastis in the world, Ricard has a sweetish aroma and an upfront anise flavour. Slightly drier and more mellow are Janot and Bellanis 45, with the former carrying a greater essence of herbs and various botanicols and the latter being more spicy in nature, even boasting a lightly peppery heat. Most complex of all is the Henri Bardouin, with its stated mix of a dozen spices yielding of soft yet complicated character accented by the sweet spice of star anise.
Sambuca photo by Nik Frey (niksan) / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)