Licorice liquors from around the world (Vámonos Vol. 6)

Food from afar can seem strange.  Meats and spices from different countries sometimes appear to come from different worlds.  Some flavors and dishes, however, reach beyond the boundaries of the country or culture that spawned them.  These treats are too popular to remain provincial delicacies.  Among these are licorice-tasting, anise-flavored liquors.

Whether because of cultural exchanges between peoples over vast expanses of land, or due to the general popularity of the licorice flavor, residents all over the Mediterranean have created their own licorice liquors.  Ouzo and mistra are Greek, raki is Turkish, anisette and pastis are French, anesone and sambuca are Italian, anis and ojan are Spanish, and kasra is Libyan.  There is also the Mexican xtabentún, which, in its original Mayan form, did not contain anise, but had the European plant added to it by Spaniards seeking to tame its strong flavor.

Tame is not the word I would use to describe any of these alcohols.  They are generally after-dinner liquors with powerful flavors.  Often they are drunk diluted with water or served on ice.

That plant, anise, or Pimpinella anisum, is the principle flavor component in most of these spirits.  It’s a thin spindly plant that is also used to flavor some foods and candies.  To flavor liquors, the anise is distilled to an essential oil.

One thing that many of these drinks (like ouzo, raki, and anis) share is the ability to perform in one of the great bartender magic tricks.  The liquor, we‘ll say raki in this example, appears clear in a bottle or glass, but as soon as water is added to it, the liquor turns white.  It’s what the Greeks call Lion’s Milk or the Milk of the Strong.  This happens because the essential oil of anise is soluble in alcohol, but not in water. Diluting the liquor with more water causes it to separate.  The oil comes out of solution, creating an emulsion whose tiny parts scatter the light.  This also happens while preparing absinthe, and it’s a fun party gag.

I heartily recommend that any Mediterranean traveler seek out one of these delicious liquors, but even if you can’t afford that Greek vacation, you might be smart to find a bottle of ouzo at a local liquor store and drink some Lion’s Milk.


This article is available en Español 

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