Anise-flavored spirits are a very popular and very old category. Raki, which originated in Turkey and Lebanon, is thought to be the oldest version. Raki is produced from a brandy distilled from sultana raisins that is then re-distilled with anise.
The most famous anise-based spirit is probably absinthe, which originated in the Swiss Alps in the 18th century. Absinthe was invented by Madame Henriod, who used a wide assortment of botanicals, including star anise, fennel, wormwood, hyssop, Melissa, parsley, chamomile, coriander, veronica and spinach. Absinthe quickly grew in popularity and was produced in substantial quantities by Pernod at the turn of the 19th century. By the middle of the 19th century, it had become enormously popular, but it was often not of good quality.
This “epidemic” of absinthe consumption, like the English gin craze a century before, incited a backlash, and the spirit was outlawed in France in 1915, supposedly because of the poisonous nature of wormwood. Wormwood contains a compound known as thujone, which was thought to be a hallucinogenic. It’s now believed that problems with absinthe related to its high alcoholic strength, not to any properties of thujone.
The category never died and today it includes many other types of spirits from around the world like ouzo from Greece, French pastis, Basque parcharan, Italian Sambuca, and others. Absinthe itself has also made a comeback, at least in Europe, where it is once again legal.
Raki should not be confused with Araq, which is a generic Arabic word for liquor, and thus indicates a large number of products. Some of these are equivalent to raki, but it is not always the same product. South and Southeast Asian arrack is distilled from palm tree sap or cane and rice and is unsweetened. Middle Eastern versions like raki are made from dates, figs and raisins, and are flavored with anise or caraway and usually sweetened.
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