tampabay.com

Good and plenty

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published July 26, 2006


Under many names in many countries, anisette starts out with distilled spirits, preferably a brandy made from grapes, raisins or pomace. It can also be made from alcohol produced from sugar cane, sugar beets, figs or other fruit.

The special ingredient is anise, usually from aniseed, often distilled a second time with the brandy, sometimes in small-batch copper pot stills. The final product can be 25 to 45 percent alcohol.

Brands differ in the number of distillations, the aging, the other herbs used, the fruits in the brandy, and whether the grapes are fresh or raisinated.

Anise gives ouzo and raki their licorice sweetness and the etheric oils that create their magical clouds. The oils are soluble in alcohol but not in water. Add enough water, and the oils separate into tiny drops and refract the light. Chill the liqueur or add too much ice, and the etherics will condense into crystals.

Some anisettes can be taken neat as an aperitif. Most should not be consumed straight or alone. Add a pitcher of cool water, a plate of light snacks and a table of warm friends. Drink slowly in small glasses and fill a long afternoon or summer evening with talk, song and perhaps a dance with Zorba.

Ouzo, sambuca and pastis are the most readily available here, but we also found raki and arak to sample.

ARAK, CHAT KEFRAYA, BEKAA VALLEY, LEBANON ($25).

A rich, round aroma of anise in the nose and, with water, a cottony cloud in the glass. Smooth, broad, sweet taste with a long, tingling finish. Arak of ages.

OUZO, METAXA, GREECE (40 PERCENT ALCOHOL, $17).

Neat, it's crystal clear with a hot nose, blazing taste and slippery texture, but it fades sweetly. Mixed with water, the heat melts to tastes of anise and zests of citrus. Mixed two to one, it's a stout cloud; four to one makes a ghostly gray color with a thin, fruitier taste. Long, broad finish. Devilishly mild.

PASTIS, RICARD (45 PERCENT, $28).

Outside Paris, the drink is Ricard, not Pernod (although the companies merged), Pastis 51 and others. Ricard has a clear, pale-gold color like a fine young scotch and an aroma of licorice and a spilled spice cabinet. Straight, it sets the tongue ablaze, mixed at four to one it is the color of grapefruit juice and tastes of anise with a hint of cinnamon. I'll have another.

RAKI, EFE, IZMIR TURKEY (45 PERCENT, $22).

After the government gave up the raki monopoly, Efe was the first private firm to distill and elevate raki with all-grape spirits from Turkish wine country. Surprisingly easy and light straight, with a mild sparkle and fun finish. Diluted at two to one, it has a slight kick. Milky color and a broad anise flavor. Builds strong lions.

SAMBUCA, ROMANA (42 PERCENT, $24).

Cordially sweet and thickly slick in texture, sambuca's the most appealing to try straight or with the traditional three coffee beans. (New black sambuca is spiked with witch elder.) The aroma is restrained, licorice, oily, a few nuts; add water and it clouds up into a rounder, even friendlier drink. Too sweet and easy.