IWSR Magazine December-January 2012/2013
The family of anise-based spirits is very wide and it has directly influenced
the development of sambuca as we know it today.
At the beginning of the 19th century, anise liqueurs were widespread across the Mediterranean area and were produced with many variations depending on the area of origin. The Mediterranean Sea, a crossroads of intensive trading, became crucial for the dispersal of these liqueurs throughout Europe. The first anise spirit – and the founder of the great family – was thanks to the Arab population: arak (or araq), which is still produced in the Middle East and North Africa. Its origin is ancient and the production method is very labour-intensive. Today the spirit is consumed as an aperitif but also during meals. It has an alcohol content of about 50% abv and is drunk after adding water to obtain a cloudy drink.
Moving towards Turkey, we find raki – even the etymology of the word goes back to arak. It is made from the double distillation of grapes and seeds of anise. Due to its high alcohol content it is also called ‘milk of lions’ and it is drunk throughout meals. Raki was also produced on many Mediterranean islands, which for centuries were under the control of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire.
Directly from this beginning came a drink which is now one of the symbols of Greece: ouzo. It is produced with grain alcohol and distilled in copper stills with anise and other herbs. Similar to ouzo is mistra, a dry anise liqueur born in the Ottoman city of Mystra, in southern Greece, whose production was brought by Venetian merchants to northern Italy.
In Sicily, another anise liqueur very similar to arak has long-reaching history: zammù. Traditionally, this spirit was sold by water vendors (acquaioli) in the streets, adding a few drops to fresh water because of its thirst-quenching effect. Water vendors became very popular due to the lack of running water in the houses, until the construction of kiosks and the eventual evolution of bars as we know them today.
Finally, another great precursor of sambuca was the French anisette. The French custom of producing anise-based spirits is very old; it is said that in 1263 an association for the protection of anise was founded.
The current anisette was developed especially in the Church. Monks, experts in botany, developed many of the food products that we know and use today and this knowledge influenced the culture of neighbouring peoples. French anisette is one of the most famous anise spirits, along with absinthe. In the next issue we’ll focus on the creation of contemporary sambuca.