What is anise? It’s in pastis, anis, and absinthe — here’s what you need to know

Green anise. Photo: iStock

In Australia, we’re probably more familiar with star anise — it’s used in any number of dishes in cuisines such as Vientamese, Indian, and Chinese — but whilst it shares a similar, licorice-like flavour to green anise, the two are not the same at all, and belong in different genus.

But they’ll both be found in alcoholic beverages. If you’re about the Mediterranean sea, you can expect to find a bottle of some anise-related liquor nearby. So whilst the French have their pastis, and the Spanish their anis del mono, you’ll also find a similar bottle in Turkey, Greece (ouzo, anyone?), Italy, Egypt and more. But what is anise? 

What is anise?

The simplest way to describe anise? It kinda tastes a little like liquorice. But it also has a citrusy, fresh character to it — one which lends itself well to drinks of the spirituous kind. 

The most famous of anise drinks, it’s fair to say, is Pernod from France, followed closely its cousin from Marseille, Ricard. 

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Anise gives these drinks a cooling kind of effect — one perfect for a late summer afternoon.

Absinthe

Ah, troubled old absinthe. The green fairy — la fee verte for the French-speakers among you — has a fearsome reputation; Belgium outlawed absinthe in 1906 and other European countries followed, with France outlawing the stuff in 1914.

That’s because absinthe was thought to be hallucinogenic, and there was even a medical condition associated with it at the time: absinthism. It was believed that the chemical thujone — found in wormwood, one of the key botanicals for absinth — could get you high, man, and see things and be all fin-de-siecle creative.

It’s all rubbish, of course; the problems ascribed to thujone were more likely caused by rough, high proof spirit (absinthes from the time didn’t have anywhere near the concentration of thujone required to go crazy).

Absinthe is a distilled spirit, traditionally from a grape base (though other neutral alcohol bases will do), that is either distilled or macerated with grand wormwood, fennel and green anise (known as the holy trinity of absinthe herbs). Other complimentary herbs are often used, including star anise, lemon balm, mint, hyssop and coriander seed.

Along with wormwood, anise contributed much of the flavour of absinthe — a licorice-like character, and one that was dispensed with by the Czechs when they began producing absinth, because it is such a polarising flavour.

The Holy Trinity

Green anise is one third of the key ingredients in absinthe; along with wormwood and fennel, it gives proper absinthe — and more often than not, the French or Swiss kind — their beautiful, citrusy and aromatic profiles. They each share similar molecular compounds, which goes a long way of explaining why they play so well together.

The louche

When you pour absinthe or pastis into a glass and top with water, the mixture will turn cloudy — this is the louche. It’s said that the whiter and more cloudy the liquor, the better the anisette, and that may be down to the reason why the mixture turns cloudy in the first place: the presence of the compound anethole, found in anise and thus found in anisette and absinthe.

Anethole also contributes to the sweetness of absinthe.

True absinthe has no sugar added to it before bottling, so it is not a liqueur. The perceived sweetness that comes through is from anethole, a flavour compound common to fennel, star anise and green anise. It is “intensely sweet – 13 times sweeter than table sugar, weight for weight” writes food scientist Harold McGee. He also ascribes the louching effect, which is the cloudiness that comes when absinthe is mixed with water, to these molecules of anethole. Apparently they dissolve in alcohol but when water is added, “the anethole molecules cluster together in bunches big enough to scatter light.”

Pastis

For a drink with such an old fashioned reputation, it may be a surprise to find out that pastis really only came about in the 1930s with the advent of Ricard (yes, the same name that forms one part of the drinks giant Pernod-Ricard). In 1932,  Paul Ricard developed his pastis with star anise and licorice and it became quite the hit.

But Pernod, in response to the ban on absinthe, developed an anise spirit drink with none of the supposedly hallucinogenic wormwood in the mix, using star anise, and called it anis.

These drinks aren’t supposed to be drinks mixed with cola, though — there’s a way to drink pastis and anis: begin with two nips of pastis, and equal parts water, and serve chilled water on the side so that the guest can add water to their taste.

It’s an old fashioned taste, and one worth reviving.   


Pernod
Pernod isn’t strictly a pastis (though many consider it such), more an anise liqueur. Here, star anise and fennel are complemented by a selection of other botanicals, resulting in a drink that is less licorice-dominant. Pernod Ricard

Ricard
The pastis of Marseille, this anise-driven drink is perfect on a hot day, mixed with water. Born in 1932, there is more of a licorice lick to this than Pernod, but it too features a cast of supporting botanicals. Pernod Ricard

La Fee Blanche Absinthe Supérieure
Based on an authetic 19th century recipe, and distilled with grand wormwood, this clear absinthe has a stronger fennel character with less of an anise focus. Its clear colour means that no wormwood has been steeped in the spirit after distillation. Think Spirits

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