A Short History of Liquorice

Ever wondered where your favourite foodstuff originated and how it’s made?

Would it surprise you to know that there are records of liquorice being consumed by the Pharaohs, Alexander the Great and Caesar? In those days it was more often drunk than eaten, but its medicinal benefits and ability to slake thirst were recognised even then.

Where, what?

Originating in southern Asia and then spreading through the Middle East and into southern Europe, liquorice is first reported in England as growing at a monastery in Pontefract, from whence its fame spread to the States and beyond, and all from the root of a plant related to the pea!

No ordinary root though, because what makes the liquorice root so special is the sweet-tasting compound, anethole, found within it. This aromatic, unsaturated ether compound is also found in anise, fennel and several other herbs, with that lovely sweet taste coming from glycyrrhizin, a compound known to be up to 50 times sweeter than sugar.


Liquorice sweets are made in one of two ways, depending on the size of the manufacturer, with smaller companies using a cornstarch moulding process, the hot, liquid liquorice being poured into the individual moulds. Once cooled the moulds are turned and the sweets fall out, ready to be packaged and packed. Larger companies also use extruders to produce the various forms of liquorice ropes available. In this case the hot liquorice liquid, complete with colours and flavours is boiled to the point where it thickens to a dough like consistency prior to be forced, extruded, through formers that give the rope shape.


In the United Kingdom the most popular form of liquorice are liquorice allsorts, but in continental Europe far stronger, saltier liquorice sweets are preferred. In the Netherlands, where liquorice "drop" is one of the most popular forms of sweet, a few of the many forms of liquorice sold contain aniseed, although mixing it with mint, menthol or with laurel is popular, and mixing it with ammonium chloride creates the very popular salty liquorice known in Dutch as zoute drop.

We’ve mentioned Pontefract in Yorkshire as being the first place where liquorice was grown in the UK and it was also the first place where liquorice mixed with sugar began to be used as a sweet in much the same way as it is today.

Liquorice flavouring isn’t just used in sweets, it’s also used in soft drinks, and in some herbal teas where it provides a sweet aftertaste. The flavour is common in medicines to disguise unpleasant flavours. Dutch youth often make their own "dropwater" (liquorice water) by putting a few pieces of laurel liquorice and a piece of liquorice root in a bottle with water and then shaking it to a frothy liquid.

Throughout Italy unsweetened liquorice is consumed in the form of small black pieces made from 100% pure liquorice extract, giving, as you can imagine, a taste that is both bitter and intense. In Calabria a popular liqueur is made from pure liquorice extract and it’s also very popular in Syria where it is sold as a drink.

Liquorice is particularly popular in Italy (especially in the South) and Spain in its natural form. The root of the plant is simply dug up, washed and chewed as a mouth freshener. Several reading this will remember liquorice sticks being sold in sweet shops throughout the UK in the 50’s and 60’s!

Liquorice root can have either a salty or sweet taste. The thin sticks are usually quite salty and sometimes taste like salmiak (salty liquorice), whereas the thick sticks are usually quite sweet, with a salty undertone.

If you know more than this or anything else interesting about liquorice, we’d love to hear from you! Why not contact us?

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