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Licorice: For Gin and a Million Other Things

Most of the botanicals used in flavoring gin are also used in herbal medicines, teas and even cosmetics. Licorice root is used for a variety of products and processes that range from curing a wide variety of ailments to enhancing tobacco. Cough medicine is one of the first everyday products that comes to mind, right after jellybeans, of course. Licorice is also used in cooking, soft drink production and the making of spirits and liqueurs. The pulp leftover after the liquid is extracted can even been used to make boxes.

The licorice plant is a member of the legume family, meaning it is closer to lima beans than jellybeans as most candies that taste like licorice these days are flavored with anise rather than licorice. It is the root of the plant that is used; the liquid is extracted from the pulpy root and boiled down to a thick, syrupy consistency or reduced even further to a solid form which can be powdered. Licorice root contains a compound that is 50 times sweeter than sugar; in some places the root is dug up washed and chewed to freshen the breath. Dried licorice root can be eaten like candy. In Syria, Italy and Egypt all have variations on drinks made from licorice extract.

Licorice root is also one of the botanicals used in some gins. Bombay uses licorice root, as do Blackwood’s Nordic Dry, Citadelle, Mercury and G’Vine, which also uses grape flower as a flavoring. Beefeater is also a common gin that also uses licorice root. It adds a bittersweet flavor that perfectly supports a gin & tonic as well as adding a bite to any cocktail where gin is front and center, such as a martini or French 75.

Licorice has a long history, going back 4,000 years. King Tut was buried with a supply to take with him into the next life. The Chinese have used licorice for medicinal purposes since ancient times. Started in the 1930’s, the use of licorice in the manufacturing of tobacco for chewing or smoking is still one of its primary uses, making up about 90% of the total usage. Some shampoos and conditioners are also scented with licorice root and it is used for some fore extinguisher compounds. Old wives’ tales about licorice say that chewing on bits of licorice root enhances lust and love, especially for women. Pass the Sen-Sen, please!

Cough syrups, throat lozenges, mouth ulcers and tooth powders are all uses for this botanical. Licorice is an expectorant, an agent that soothes and cools, an anti-inflammatory agent and has been known to successfully treat stomach ulcers. Canker sores have been effectively treated with a licorice mouthwash. The main active ingredient in licorice is glycyrrhizin and it is known to stimulate the activity of the adrenal glands. Licorice root is also being used to treat patients with hepatitis C. Further studies are also beginning to suggest licorice is an effective treatment for heart disease as it may help to reduce high blood pressure. One study has shown some effectiveness in treating patients with HIV and Japanese encephalitis, but those studies remain inconclusive and the findings have yet to be duplicated in larger studies.

Licorice can be administered in teas, lozenges, mouthwashes, chewable tablets, liquid form (tinctures) and dried root. As with any herbal medication, special care should be taken to see if licorice reacts with any medications already being taken. Using licorice for extended periods of time can also have adverse effects, so care must be taken to avoid adverse reactions or side effects.

As you sip pensively on your martini this week, know that the subtle licorice flavor evokes much more than the box of Good ‘n’ Plenty that you get at the movie theater. As a medicinal herb, it’s been around a long time. Ancient warriors chewed on the root of the sweet licorice plant to quench their thirst when there was no water to be found. Licorice is the gin botanical of a million uses, including making your gin more tasty.

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