Why You'll Want to Sip Pastis, Ouzo, Arak, Raki, and Other Beloved Anise Aperitifs This Summer
"Anise is captured in history," says Jade Ayala, beverage director at Mystic, Connecticut cocktail bar The Port Of Call. It's a culinary herb also known as aniseed. The first anise spirits are thought to have been distilled by monks, though the spirts vary widely across the world. "It is interesting to see that each culture has their own version of anise drinks that were rooted in the terrior," says Ayala. "Each differs by what they were working with, and it captures tradition in a spirit."
Today, Ayala notes that anise aperitifs are used in cocktails and enjoyed on their own. Jenna DeBye, assistant food and beverage manager at the Inn at Hastings Park, in Lexington, Massachusetts, notes that when mixing the cocktails, she looks for bold flavors that stand up to anise. "Bourbon or rye have deep caramel flavors that work so well with anise." You can also use them in coffee drinks, too, she says. "Anise adds another level of aroma and flavor notes."
But there is no need to get fancy and mix cocktails to enjoy anise. Many anise aperitifs are made with just a few ingredients and are able to transport you to the south of France, a Greek island, or a Scandinavian city in a single sip. Here are a few of the most beloved drinks featuring this star ingredient.
Taking its signature color and flavor from green anise, fennel, various additional herbs and flowers, and grand wormwood, absinthe is said to have originally been used in Switzerland for medicinal purposes. It crossed the border to France where it was a drinks sensation in the nineteenth century. By 1915, it was banned in both the U.S. and Europe, and was not been seen again on U.S. shelves until the ban was lifted in 2007. It was the wormwood, not the anise that was so controversial
According to Antoine Robert of Distilleries et Domaines de Provence in Forcalquirer, France, drinking absinthe the traditional way is advised; in a small glass with an absinthe spoon and a sugar cube on top, and diluted with cold water.
Frank Jones, mixologist at Dirty Habit in Washington, D.C., finds absinthe also adds another level of complexity to more refreshing and fruit-forward cocktails. "I love adding absinthe to citrus-forward cocktails such as Moscow mules and even adding a few drops to into an aviation cocktail will give a whole new dimension to an already loved cocktail," he says.
Scandinavia's contender in the anise-based aperitif lineup is aquavit, which is distilled from grain or potato and then flavored with anise, caraway, dill, fennel ,and coriander. Unlike the other aperitifs featured her, anise plays only in the background in aquavit and the drink is not as forward with the black licorice flavoring as others. In Norway, aquavit is made a little differently, it's aged its in sherry casks, producing Linie style aquavit.
Aquavit is usually served neat or chilled from the freezer, but not mixed or diluted.
One of the oldest distilled spirits, arak is a grape-based distillate made from a variety of white grape, obeidi, that is native to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant and especially cherished in Lebanon. "The grapes are harvested in late September and October, are crushed and put in barrels together with the juice and left to ferment for three weeks," explains Michael Holiday, a partner and bartender at 600T in Washington, D.C.
Traditionally, he says, arak is made only from grape and aniseed and undergoes two distillations. It is served blended with cold water at 1:2 ratio, with one part arak and one part water.
Made in Greece and in Cyprus, ouzo is a very important drink for Greeks, so much so that there are bars dedicated to it throughout the country. This 80-percent proof drink is based on anise but can also contain cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coriander, fennel, mint, and mastic, giving it a black licorice flavor.
Ouzo is often served alongside meze, Greek small plates, and sipped slowly. It is generally served neat, with the option of ice. The ice turns the liquid a bit opaque for an interesting visual.
Also from Greece and Cyprus but less well known than ouzo is tsipouro. Mixologist Kraig Rovensky, global ambassador for hemp-based non-alcoholic spirit The Pathfinder, says this anise aperitif deserves to be better known.
"Tsipouro is believed to have [first] been the distillation of wine, though later production would mostly utilize the pomace, which is the remains of the grapes after going through a press, so the skins, pulp, stems, and seeds," he says. When different flavorings were added during production, anise was the most popular. Tsipouro may taste somewhat similar to ouzo but the distilling process for these two anise drinks is vastly different.
Rovensky likens the process for making tsipouro to that used for making Italian grappa. Ouzo is different, it is distilled to 96 percent alcohol to make the base essentially flavorless. "At this point the anise and other herbs and spices are added in," he says. Tsipouro can be sipped with ice or with water, but most fans agree that with ice is the best way to activate the flavors without too much dilution.
You might already know and love pastis, both Pernod and Ricard are well known brands. Pastis began as an anise-based liquor made in Provence and became popular all over the country after absinthe was banned. "Pastis is sweetened and usually has a lower ABV than absinthe. Producers use blends of tinctures and distillates to make pastis. There are some brands that use more than 60 botanicals," explains Holiday.
Like other anise spirits, a glass of water is served alongside pastis so the drinker is able to dilute it to their own liking. However, it can also be used in a variety of cocktails, replacing other anise-style drinks in a gin- or vodka-based cocktail.
Raki is a distillate of grape and anise explains Rovensky. It dates back to before the 1630s when it was first written about and is said to have been first made at home as a way to use the leftover waste of wine production, stemming from a raisin/grape base. It has since become a staple aperitif in Turkey.
"It is made from the suma or a suma mixed with a neutral spirit," explains Holiday. "The suma or suma mixed spirit is diluted with water and then redistilled with aniseed. The distillate is diluted and sweetened. It must rest for at least 30 days in order for the flavors to marry."
Raki is best enjoyed mixed with cold water or with water and ice.