Licorice’s Dark Secret

I think it’s safe to say that I’m a bit annoyed at a bit of information I’ve uncovered of late. I’ve gone forty-some odd years of my life with a particular world view, only to discover that this perspective is not only wrong, but had I taken even only the littlest of initiative, I would have uncovered this information years ago.

The news? Licorice doesn’t actually taste like licorice.

Okay, okay, okay. Of course it takes like licorice…because that’s what it is. What it doesn’t taste like is anise, which is that deep, sweet/savory/herbal component that most of us equate to black licorice. So now I look back to all of the times my friends and I have taste fennel, or absinthe, and said it has a licorice-ness about it, we’ve been flat out wrong.

All of you long term licorice fans can feel free to mock the rest of us.

As you can see from the picture above, I received honest-to-god licorice root from some company or another. Taken from the Glycyrrhiza glabra, aka European Licorice. The Licorice drops, I have no idea which plant it came from, and in all honesty, I avoided tasting due to the alcohol added to the mix.

But I did make a tea (pictured below) from the roots, and got a first hand experience on what the root is supposed to taste like. The result? While there is a woody component to the taste, what licorice root mostly tastes of is sweetness. So much so that when I handed Tara the glass of tea for her to imbibe, she asked if I had to add honey to make it palatable. No, licorice root is sweet completely unto itself.

This new knowledge is even more embarrassing when I uncovered that the word ‘licorice’ spells it out exactly. According to, the word origin of liquorice comes from Old French licoresse, which itself comes from the Greek glukurrhiza or ‘sweet root’.

And here I was thinking that Glycyrrhiza glabra was some sort of incantation created by H. P. Lovecraft.

This new knowledge comes with new questions. Specifically: Why do some licorice makers seem to go overboard on Anise oil? I understand why it’s there to begin with (mostly a cross between tradition and pharmacological reasons), but at some point, when the medical benefits of licorice candies came into doubt, somebody, somewhere said “Oh, what the hell.” and decided what licorice really needed was an overdose of anise oil. Of course, there are also the folks who decided to add salt to the mix, so perhaps trying to find a logical reasoning for licorice ingredients is simply a lost cause.

So what does this mean to the average licorice consumer, i.e. me? Looking at the ingredient list is probably the best route to go. If you doesn’t like the black licorice flavor, don’t go blaming the licorice root. It’s all Anise’s fault. The higher Anise Oil is on the ingredient list increases the reaction from the consumer (either pro or con).