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Absinthe is poured into a glass over a sugar cube in a traditional preparation called the ‘absinthe ritual’. Absinthe is one of the many liqueurs that uses anise to give it its unique flavour. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How anise went from medicinal plant to raki, sambuca, ouzo and pastis ingredient

  • Anise-flavoured drinks are popular all around the Mediterranean. The plant was used for thousands of years for medicines before becoming an alcohol flavouring
  • Star anise, from a different plant native to China and Vietnam but with the same licorice taste, made its way to the West and eventually into those same drinks

Refreshing anise-flavoured drinks that turn cloudy white with the addition of water are savoured in warm countries of the Mediterranean region.

From southern Europe to the Arab world, each nation has its own anise beverage, usually enjoyed as an after-meal digestif or in the late afternoon, and over the centuries they have become iconic drinks reflecting national identity.

There’s sambuca and anisetta in Italy, pastis in France, ouzo in Greece, raki in Turkey, and arak in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East. These anise-flavoured drinks flourished in the Mediterranean first as medicines and later as liqueurs – made at first using anise, a flowering herb with lacy leaves found in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and later with star anise too.

Reddish or brown in colour, star anise is the star-shaped seedpod of a medium-sized evergreen tree native to China and Vietnam.

Anise seeds grown in Italy. Photo: Riccardo Tosti Photography

Today, nearly all anise-flavoured drinks feature a tantalising blend of star anise and anise, which have nothing physically in common but whose flavours are remarkably similar.

“Anise is barely known in China. If it’s used it gets lumped as fennel,” says Eugene Anderson, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, and a food and nutrition expert who has written many books on China.

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“Chinese star anise is a completely different plant,” he adds, although it has the same flavouring, anethole, as anise.

“Star anise has been used to flavour drinks in the West in the last couple of centuries, but to my knowledge was never used to flavour alcoholic or other indulgent drinks in East Asia, where it’s generally used in stews, to add flavour, aid digestion, and create yang qi, which in this case is basically another way of referring to its stimulant, warming, digestion-aiding effects.”

It is also used in Chinese “five spice” powder, Anderson adds. Still widely grown in Vietnam and China, chefs use it in Asian dishes such as the Vietnamese noodle staple pho.

A bottle of anisetta meletti, which is an anise-flavoured liqueur. Photo: Yuma Comunicazion

The other anise spread from the Mediterranean to China thanks to its medicinal properties, which were documented in books written by Mongols. In China, it was used to cure eye, ear, and stomach ailments, and the spice was thought to be a powerful antidote to poison when mixed with other substances, Anderson says.

In turn, star anise was used in the West as a base ingredient of medicines.

The “democratisation” of star anise started in the 1500s with the opening of a spice trade route by the Portuguese sailor-merchant Vasco da Gama. He established the route to compete with the trade monopoly of the Silk Road, says historian and chef Anna Maria Pellegrino.

Star anise was first taken from Asia to the West by merchants travelling along the famed silk and spice trade routes. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Over the centuries, star anise became more affordable, and when it was found to have a higher concentration of fragrant oil than anise or aniseed – an ingredient made from anise seed, and first used in Egypt 4,000 years ago to make a potent medicinal drink – distillers began adding it to their liqueurs.

Anderson says aniseed is considered a digestive aid, which may be why it was first used in digestif liqueurs.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that most liqueur producers could afford to regularly blend star anise with aniseed. According to David Smith, a judge at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, today distillers in the Mediterranean typically use both spices in anise-flavoured beverages.

You want a bit of sweetness, that distinctive anise flavour, but also complexity, so you might have other leafy, fruity, woody, peppery or honey notes. It’s not a one-dimensional liqueur
David Smith, a judge at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, on the best anise-flavoured drinks

“Gram for gram, star anise has a higher oil content [8-12 per cent for star anise compared to 1-5 per cent for aniseed] so you need less star anise,” he says. Star anise has a powerful licorice flavour, while aniseed is more subtle.

“When merchants first tasted star anise it reminded them of aniseed so the two were associated, and probably that’s how the name star anise circulated – from their similar tastes,” Smith says. “The next step was to use star anise, which has a more fragrant-rich oil, in liqueur production alongside aniseed. From a technical point of view, with one star anise you can flavour a lot of alcohol; it’s very oily.”

This oil, found in both anise and star anise, is the reason why the addition of water to an anise drink produces that distinctive cloudy, milky colour: the oil from the distillation is not soluble in water.

Anise seeds have been used to flavour liqueurs around the world. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The addition of star anise to anise-flavoured drinks in the West was partly to signify status. According to Smith, using star anise in the Middle Ages would have been extremely expensive, so during the Renaissance, when drinks became more sophisticated and recreational, star anise was used to point to the wealth of ruling families and landowners.

Liqueur production then was small-scale; distillation was the work of the cooks and kitchen staff of big royal houses or monasteries.

The best anise-flavoured drinks are the perfect mix of many ingredients, not just star anise or aniseed, Smith says. “You want a bit of sweetness, that distinctive anise flavour, but also complexity, so you might have other leafy, fruity, woody, peppery or honey notes. It’s not a one-dimensional liqueur. You also look for other flavours like lemon or citrus that bring out even more of the anise flavour.”

In France there is a particular cream pastis with a velvety texture that is highly regarded, while a strong Turkish raki is dubbed the “Milk of Lions”. It is important the drink doesn’t leave any burning feeling in the mouth or cling to the tongue, Smith says.

A glass of pastis, which is an anise-flavoured aperitif traditionally drunk in France. Photo: Riccardo Tosti Photography

French absinthe – the so-called green fairy – which sometimes uses both star anise and aniseed, gave rise to pastis. When governments around the world banned absinthe in the early 1900s because it was thought to be dangerous, liqueur producers developed pastis as a substitute.

Italy is known worldwide for its various anise-flavoured sambuca varieties, but the nation produces other such drinks. Italians like to add a coffee bean to their digestif shot of anise- and aniseed-flavoured liqueurs. They call it “the fly” because it looks like an insect swimming in the glass.

In the central Italian region of Marche, overlooking the Adriatic Sea, there is a patch of land where green anise is grown and used to make liqueur, cakes and biscuits.

An anise field in the hills near Ascoli Piceno, Italy. Photo: Handout

The Meletti family have been making anisetta liqueur, primarily with locally cultivated aniseed, since 1870, following a secret recipe handed down over generations. The anise grows in fields in the hills near a picturesque old town, Ascoli Piceno.

“As opposed to other popular and commercial Italian anise drinks, ours is a niche artisanal product, and the recipe is top secret,” says Matteo Meletti, who runs the firm with his brother Mauro. “It has an elegant flowery bouquet aroma of seeds and fruits.”

Farmers in Marche have been cultivating anise for centuries, originally to make herbal medicinal potions using traditional recipes first developed by monks. The potions were used not just by humans – they were also given to sick horses. In the 1800s, with rural development, anise became as important as grain, but more profitable. Italian premium anise was shipped to other European countries, including France.

Mauro (left) and Matteo Meletti. Their family have been making anisetta liqueur since 1870. Photo: Courtesy Mauro Meletti

Today, Meletti exports its liqueur to China. “The Chinese love anisetta because it’s not the ordinary, industrial Made-in-Italy product, but it has a long family history, which adds an intangible value to it,” Meletti says.

“In Shanghai, people started tasting it as an end-meal digestif, but being a very international city where trends rapidly evolve, now anisetta is being used in cocktail mixology as well.”