The Learning Part
So in the Graphic below, I’ve presented something rather interesting. In red, we’ve got the nations across the globe that frequently enjoy anise (and licorice) flavored spirits of many varieties. A keen observer might notice that this includes such interesting places as literally all of Europe. This puts such spirits on the same lofty plateau as the metric system, healthy diets, and not hearing “Well then why don’t you just leave” whenever you say bad things about the United States. The point being that if we’ve lost our collective american minds about everything else from Europe, then why do you really never see this particular spirit here in the U.S.? The answer? IDK, probably racism or something. But lets not digress… the real reason that nobody drinks it is because nobody knows about it. It’s hard to look for something that you don’t even know exists! We can’t hold that against you! In order to remedy that unfortunate error, I’m here today to help you fall in love with a drink that you never even knew existed… or at least to let you know it exists.
Arak, Raki, Mastika, Ouzo, Absinthe, Anestone, Anisette, Herbsaint, Mistra, Pastis and Sambuca… you’ve probably heard of at least one of them if you’ve been drinking for more than five years or if you live with or near anybody who might be considered “ethnic” (if you aren’t sure, bring them to your next Thanksgiving dinner and at least one of your relatives will be sure to let you know.) As with all things, I believe that it’s easier to love them if you understand them first so for this particular spirit, we will start at the heart of it: Anise.
Anise is a small plant, relative to fennel, parsley, and Queen Anne’s Lace. It, along with it’s cousin Star Anise taste an awful lot like licorice root without being absolutely awful to harvest and attain like licorice root. Anise grows primarily in the Mediterranean and is deeply ingrained in the food and culture of the people there, making it a plant held in high regard. Star Anise grows in China, Vietnam, and Japan and is significantly easier to harvest, making it the preferred method of imparting Anise flavor (because traditions can suck it and everything else is made in China anyways.)
Once you get past the Anise, everything else is more or less a free-for-all. Anise flavored spirits have been around since (potentially as far back as) 800 B.C. so what it is has changed and shifted dramatically as it and it’s imbibers traveled the world. The base for a spirit in this family varies wildly depending on the country or region (and what sugar sources they have), the inclination of the distiller, and the quality of the product. In the Middle East, many were produced from dates and figs. In India: the sap of Palm Trees; Indonesia: sugar cane or rice; Greece: grapes and raisins. Once the base ingredient is fermented and ready to be distilled, you have more variety. For some of these producers double distilled is a mark of quality, as with many brandy and whiskey makers. For others, they may use the triple distilled copper pot method, or they might use more modern column stills to achieve a more neutral base product. Today, there are many that use ‘neutral grain spirits’ and flavor via maceration.
It’s important to keep in mind that many producers of spirits, particularly those that never intend to become large international companies, don’t follow any real set of standards or rules. This is true of Scotch, where one man might make a lowland Scotch as sweet as a Bourbon and a Highlander will give you one with so much peat you think they left some in the bottle. It’s true of Gin and Brandy and Rum and Bourbon. Makers of good alcohol are often the first to break rules and redefine categories in their search to find something delicious. This is true also of spirits that you, the reader, might not have heard of or ever tried. Below, I will begin to talk about the general qualities and characteristics of each of the anise-family spirits and where they come from but I want you to keep in mind that these are only guidelines. The only way to truly know what you are drinking is to consult the bottle and the manufacturer that made it, that is, if they will tell you their secrets… many will not.
The Family Tree
Arak is, loosely speaking, the ‘basis’ of all other anise-family spirits. I say this because you can, for the most part, use the sentence: “Oh, _____ is just Arak but made in _____ with _____!” I’ve found that equating a new spirit with something you are familiar with helps a great deal to cement this information in your mind for later. So, Arak. In Amy Stewart’s “The Drunken Botanast”, she lists Arak as being consumed in Lebanon and the Middle East, a distinction which I assume is for the benefit of the rest of the world since in the U.S., Lebanon is securely categorized as part of the Middle East (assuming of course that the person you are talking to has the remotest clue where you are discussing, a bold assumption at best.) Arak is produced from Grapes (mixed with the seeds and skins, producing a very different spirit than if made from juice alone) and, on the second distillation, anise seeds are added to flavor the spirit. It’s important to note that the seeds are added before distillation, not after, as with many flavored spirits. It also contains no added sugar.
Ouzo is just Arak but made in Greece and with some other spices too! See how that works? Neat, huh? Well, it’s not quite that simple, but you get the idea. With most craft spirits nowadays, people are very insistent that if you don’t ferment it yourself that it’s somehow “cheating”. Personally I don’t think that’s true at all, but more importantly for this section is that it’s actually not true of most Ouzo. Even the craft stuff starts from a high proof rectified spirit and the art is in the combination of spices added before (and during) the second distillation. Whether or not sugar is added depends on the distillers taste, but most Ouzos that add sugar are from Southern Greece, so it’s a bit of a cultural aspect as well. Interestingly, this is the only spirit on here that has a true ‘Appellation d’origine contrôlée‘, or in other words, the exclusive legal right to produce spirits called Ouzo. All the other ones are generally produced in certain regions but haven’t gotten big enough or contentious enough for people to claim a legal right over them. We will see if this continues to be the case in the coming years as unique global spirits start to become more popular in the United States. Perhaps also the problem is also deciding who should claim the title of ‘true maker’, given how these spirits have traveled across the globe for centuries.
Now, in my experience Sambuca is the anise-spirit that’s been gaining the most traction here in the U.S. but admittedly that means I’ve met more than three people who drink it so my sample size isn’t exactly overwhelming. Sambuca is just Arak but made in Italy and adding elderflower as well as the anise. It also almost always has added sugar as well. One unusual aspect of Sambuca is in its traditional serving method: with coffee beans. I’ll get into serving styles down below but none of the other spirits on this list are traditionally served with several coffee beans in the shot that you then eat.
Raki… it’s the official drink of Turkey, but it is popular all over the middle east and Balkans. It’s traditionally made with grapes as the base, but sugar beets, molasses and figs have also been used with much success. One unusual characteristic of this category is that new ‘types’ of raki each get their own name. With other spirits, like Bourbon, there is one title and if you want to distinguish yours from the rest you can use descriptors on the front or back or adjust your advertising accordingly. With raki, the descriptor is in the title; for example Yeni Raki (New Raki) is produced from sugar beets and is therefore distinguished from your normal Raki, while düz Raki which doesn’t have anise flavor, and sakiz raki which is made with Gum Mastik. I’m willing to bet it’s a lot easier to follow when you drink a lot of it and speak the language.
Anisette is just Arak made in France from Grapes! …there actually isn’t much to expand upon with this one. Usually sugar is added to anisette but there is no minimum so it’s typically sweeter than Arak but not as sweet as Sambuca. It also bears the title of “most likely liquor on this list that I would name a child” but I suppose that’s a matter of taste. It also goes by Anis in Spain and Mexico.
Now this one is a little bit fun because you’ll probably hear the name aguardiente referring to a great deal of spirits coming out of Central and South America, but only in one place does it refer to the anise-flavored spirit: Columbia. It’s also made from primarily sugar cane.. unsurprising, given the region.
From here on out we are looking at primarily smaller differences so they don’t deserve real headings. Take that, little guys!
Absinthe: While this isn’t actually a smaller product, it’s not primarily flavored with anise, it just usually includes it. You can find more about Absinthe on my other post dedicated entirely to it: Here.
Pastis: A french liqueur that also includes licorice root for flavoring in addition to anise. It was touted most successfully as a replacement for Absinthe after the ban, as it contains no wormwood.
Herbsaint: A name brand product, the only one on this list that involves the U.S., Herbsaint was also created as an alternative to Absinthe after the ban.
Anis Escarchando: This is just a Spanish version of Anisette, made way cooler by the fact that it includes a sugar coated (crystallized) anise flower inside the bottle. How cool is that?!
Mistra: Just like Ouzo but made in Rome!
Patxaran: An infused product that begins with anisette (or similar product) and infuses it with sloe berries, coffee, and cinnamon. It honestly sounds delicious and great for colder weather.
Mastika: The Bulgarian Mastika, much like Ouzo. Not to be confused with the Greek, Macedonian, or Romanian Mastikas which are nothing like Ouzo, as they are primarily flavored with Mastik and therefore taste more pine-y than licorice-y.
THE FUN PART
So there you go, you know all about all these new and exciting spirits from all over the world… except for the most important part: How to drink it! I’ll also go into what to eat with it a little bit too, because in order to truly understand why some things become popular, you have to understand the culture around it.
Like Oil and Water
Have you ever heard the phrase “they go together like oil and water”? It’s generally used to indicate that two things DO NOT mix. Have you ever heard the phrase “they go together like oil and alcohol”? No, of course not, that’s a weird thing to say. BUT it’s an important idea for you to understand the concept of “Louching” or the “Ouzo effect”. Alcohol is a particularly excellent solvent for oils. It’s basically *the* solvent for oils. Oils are also basically *the* carrier of flavor. This is the basic idea behind any infusion: you take your alcohol (higher proof the better) and you soak natural ingredients in it to extract the oils that carry the flavor. If you re-distill it you will reduce that flavor a little bit but the spirit will be clear. If you don’t re-distill it, the spirit will be colored and the flavor more intense. Either way, there is still a very high concentration of oils in the product. When you mix this ‘high concentrated oil-alcohol’ with water, it dilutes it until there is more water than alcohol. At this point you can actually visually see the oil molecules disconnecting from the alcohol molecules, and the drink becomes cloudy white. This is how basically every culture prefers to drink their anise-spirit of choice.
The best known example of this is in absinthe, which has a particularly rigid and complicated form of serving the drink. Pretty much everybody else just takes their chilled spirit and adds cold water at roughly 3-1 ratio (water being the higher number for all you lushes out there). Due to the intensity of the flavor, it is NOT intended to be taken as shots. Lets say it again for the college students in the back; DO NOT DO THIS AS A SHOT. IT WILL NOT BE GOOD. YOU WILL NOT LIKE IT.
If you’re going traditional and you want to know when to drink it, you have a few choices. All of these spirits are most commonly served as an apéritif, which means you drink it before you eat to “stimulate the appetite”. This word also applies when you drink it with your appetizers, before you get to the real meal. In a good portion of the cultures we are discussing, this would be when you served ‘mezes’ or small bites, often consisting of seafood dishes. Digestifs are on the other end of the meal, taken once you are full to help with your digestion and are also a recommended way of consuming your new spirit.
If, like me, you are in the United States and you typically drink your hard liquor in cocktails, I have bad news and good news… the Bad news is that there are *very few* cocktails out there that contain anise spirits, particularly compared to the bigger categories. The good news is that these spirits are Excellent in cocktails and you can totally make your own and come up with new and exciting names for them! Obviously you can google recipes for all of these and peruse through pages and pages of suggestions but I’ll put just a few of my favorites, the most famous, and the traditional serving suggestions here.
Ouzini, the (alternative) official drink of Cyprus, generously copy/pasted from Wikipedia:
2 oz (one part) Cyprus ouzo
6 oz (three parts) fresh orange juice
2 oz (one part) fresh lemon juice
2-4 drops of bitters
Shake ouzo and fresh juices vigorously together, coat the rim of a glass with powdered sugar and pour drink into glass over ice, and add dash of bitters. Garnish with a thin orange slice and serve.
Ammazzacaffè, when you have your after dinner coffee and upon finishing it, fill the cup with liquor and drink it.
Caffè corretto, when you place the liquor into the coffee instead of sugar. I would recommend a sweetened spirit for this particular one.
This Wikipedia page details several ‘cocktails’ made with pastis that are essentially: 2 oz Pastis + 5 oz water + 1-2 oz flavored syrup = cocktail. Each cocktail has a brand new name which is one of my biggest pet peeves ever, so for this ‘cocktail’ I would encourage you to just put a little bit of whatever fruit or savory simple syrup you might have around the house and enjoy it without worrying too much about what it’s called.
Finally, we have This delightful little page which essentially says “Fuck it, just sub in the spirit for whatever you would have used in all the other classic cocktails”, which I think is fantastic advice and is actually pretty much what most cocktails are. Join me for another round of “It’s just ____ but with ______!”
That’s all folks, at least until I can put some pictures up here of some of the exciting brands I’ll be trying soon. If you love my writing and want to tell me, leave a comment. If I’m totally wrong and you want to tell me, also leave a comment. If you have any requests or questions, you know where to find me. Drink well and have a beautiful day!
5 thoughts on “The Definitive Guide to Arak and Other Anise spirits”
I really enjoyed this detailed explanation of Anise flavored spirits and their origins. However you do have a typo in the country of Colombia. Thank you
Stumbled on this and absolutely LOVE your writing style!!! When trying to find the author or your socials, I couldn’t get links to work. I was crushed. I need to read more!!! I’m going to get off the page and retry. If that fails, I hope my signing up for post notifications works. Keep writing!
Hi! I don’t really post on here anymore since we opened turquoise sky custom spirits. If you check out our socials and youtube thats were I post more now!