Anise has a long and flavorful history. It is mentioned in the Bible as a lesson not to be stingy to the Lord. It marched with Caesar as a treat for his troops, possibly one of the first candies developed. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all used it to help digestive ailments, from upset stomachs to bad breath to indigestion. The Romans went so far as to bake it into mustaceum cake, where it was used with other herbs to aid in digestion. It was used for medicinal purposes as well as in cooking to add stronger flavors, or balance out sweetness. As time continued, more and more uses were found for this aromatic and powerfully flavored herb, from cosmetics to liquor. On July 2, we look to its use in liquors as we celebrate National Anisette Day.
Anisette is a generic name used for a liqueur that is primarily flavored with the herb anise, giving the drink a black licorice flavor. Sugary syrup is added to tone down the flavor ever so slightly. Anise grows mainly in the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece, but has spread through the world. Many of those countries also have created their own distinct anisette variations: in Greece it is known as ouzo, in Turkey it is called raki, in Syria, Egypt, and Israel it is known as arak. It is believed that Marie Brizzard, the popular French liqueur company, started to make anisette in 1755 with their other flavored options, helping to spread the popularity of the flavor through Europe. The Spanish fell in love with what they call Anis del Mono (“the monkey’s anisette”), the French created pastis and another infamous liqueur, absinthe. The Italians developed both white and black sambuca. All of them have their own variations of sweetness from the sugar added to the base spirit.
The flavor of licorice is a strong one, and anisette is rarely found without something mixed in it. The popular mix of choice for anisette in its many forms is water, whether you are looking at an elegant absinthe fountain or just pouring equal amounts of water and reki in a glass to create Lion’s Milk. One reason is the water dilutes the flavor, making it less intense and easier to drink. The other is to create and effect call louching, where the latent oils that are in the anise refuse to bond with the water mixture, giving the beverage a cloudy look. This is rarely done with sambuca (thought it would work), but the Italians came up with a unique solution to help cut the flavor of the anisette. They serve it with three coffee beans floating on top of it, calling it sambuca con la mosca, sambuca with a fly. The three beans represent health, happiness, and prosperity. You can do it with more or less, but it is considered bad luck to do it with an even number. After you drink the sambuca, you can chew on the beans to enhance the rich anise flavor.
Looking for it in this area can be difficult. Some of the more craft cocktail oriented places like Salar and Rue Dumaine may have absinthe or sambuca as aperitifs or digestifs to have during your meal, or for use in cocktails like a sazerac, Café de Paris, or typhoon. If you are looking to try an excellent louched drink, look to Pasha Grill for Yeni Raki, one of my favorites. Absinthe, sambuca, and ouzo are also common to find in liquor stores like Arrow Wine if you are feeling adventurous and want to bring some home for your own personal trials in cocktails.
From candy to medicine to cocktails, anise has proven to be a versatile and coveted plant. Its flavor profile, similar to a sweeter black licorice, is something people either love or hate. It blends well with other flavors in cooking as well as in adult beverages, helping to tone down bitter flavors and enhance sweeter ones. Over the Fourth of July weekend, with all of the family and friends you are going to be seeing, you have an opportunity to gather around a glass of something unique after a good meal and toast to each other’s heath, happiness, and prosperity.