Anise and Licorice
Anise, one of our favorite flavors, is a polarizing one for many people; they either love it or hate it. It’s a rarity in domestic cooking or beverages except as an accent. You either came out of childhood with a liking for black liquorice or a bad emotional memory of a flavor straight out of a witches brew. Anise flavors are bold and unmistakable. I’ve come to believe some folks are genetically sensitive to this set of volatile and aromatic compounds (in the same way some people experience cilantro in opposite ways).
Anise flavors can come from several botanicals, and for the most part they are completely unrelated to each other. Two are called anise, but are different species. The seed known as green anise comes from a species with the delightful name of Pimpinella Anisum, an herbaceous annual plant native to the eastern mediterranean. It’s from the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family, which also contains angelica, asafoetida, caraway, carrot, celery, chervil, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, hemlock, parsley, and parsnip. Many of these are used in cooking, spirits, liqueurs, or traditional medicines. It imparts a sweet licorice like flavor on the warm and fruity part of the spectrum. It has more subtlety than fennel or star anise. We’re using it in our NOTOM™ amaro and in our upcoming version of Kümmel, but it is used in a wide range of liqueurs including absinthe.
A bolder expression of anise flavor comes from Star Anise, aka Illicum Verum (latin illicio means “entice”). Whereas the Apiaceae were herbaceous, star anise comes from a smaller evergreen tree related to magnolia which native to the zone where Vietnam meets China. It can be described as pungent, sweet, with licorice notes and an assertive warmth coupled with a numbing effect in higher concentrations. Galliano, Sambuca, Pastis, Absinthe, and many other liqueurs use it. We use it in our OREAD™ botanical liqueur.
When people taste OREAD™, they often describe a flavor of “black licorice.” This comes from the star anise. But actual licorice is the root of yet another species of plant called Glycyrrhiza Glabra, which basically translates to “sweet root.” We’re back to herbaceous, this time as a perennial. Long used as a sweetener, it found a place in many traditional candies even before the ready availability of refined sugar. The aroma is sweet, warm, and medicinal; the flavor sweet, earthy, and anise-like with a bitter salty aftertaste. Higher concentrations bring out the bitterness (beware Italian cough drops which exploit the natural cough suppressant and expectorant qualities of the plant, and some of which use a lot of licorice root!). It is native to SE Europe. Licorice root sees wide use in gin, which is not usually sweetened.
Finally, the last botanical that imparts the anise flavor is fennel seed, from the plant Foeniculum Vulgare, our fourth species and the second in the Apiaceae family. It imparts a warm anise/licorice flavor with a hint of camphor, with a touch more astringency than green anise. Most uses in liqueurs come from use of the seeds. The plant also produces an edible bulb which also has an anise-like character. We use anise in our NOTOM™ amaro. It’s also used in absinthe and many other botanical liqueurs.
All these plants get the anise flavor from an aromatic chemical called ANETHOLE. The difference in solubility of anethole in water and alcohol partially explains the “louching” or clouding effect in liqueurs like absinthe. This anethole note and the range of expression it receives in the different botanicals is one of the key reasons these are so fun to use. Like the difference in playing a note on a banjo or a flute, the various plants produce unique variations on the same flavor. Think of your taste buds as the instrument!
If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, here's an article that is very educational: