The History of Licorice

The history of licorice begins underground. That’s where the licorice roots grow; the ingredient that makes licorice taste like licorice – the stuff that we Dutch love so much.

Nowhere in the world is licorice as popular as in the Netherlands. There are other places where they like licorice: in Scandinavia, they like to eat it; in England, they like Liquorice Allsorts; and the Italians enjoy pure licorice root extract. But, it’s the Netherlands that is the champion. We are the best licorice eaters ever.

How much licorice do the Dutch eat?

About 32 million kilos of licorice candy is consumed in the Netherlands every year. That’s equivalent to 2 kilos per person. Considering that, even in the Netherlands, not everyone likes licorice and babies aren’t allowed licorice, it’s anyone’s guess how much the average licorice appreciator really consumes each year.

Why exactly licorice is so popular in the Netherlands is not entirely clear. According to some, it’s because the Netherlands (like England and Scandinavia) is by the sea that we love the salty taste of licorice. But what about all the other countries that are by the sea? Take Japan, for example, or Chile (Just to mention two random countries close to the sea where they don’t eat licorice.)

Licorice and the licorice root

Licorice as we know it, a small black shiny sweet, has been around since the eighteenth century. However, the licorice root has been recognized for longer, much longer. You can still buy licorice root today. Most drugstores in the Netherlands stock it on their shelves. The taste is a bit earthy at first, but once you start chewing it, the juices are released and you can taste the licorice flavour.

The licorice root, which makes licorice taste like licorice, has a very long history.

Mummies love licorice

Did you know that licorice root was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb? Tutankhamun lived in the fourteenth century BC, that’s more than 3000 years ago. It’s not clear why Tutankhamun had licorice root in his tomb. Perhaps he just really liked the taste. Who knows, he might have taken it to his grave to make the Great Crossing safely and placate the gods on the other side. The dead often received valuables to safeguard their salvation. Should you ever get a visit from a mummy in your bedroom, perhaps you can offer him some licorice. Who knows, it might help.

Alexander the Great – licorice fan

Nearly a thousand years later, Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia who was conquering half the world, took licorice root on his campaigns. It was supposed to help with thirst.

A little later, in the time of the Greeks and the Romans, the juice of the licorice root was used as medicine to relieve an upset stomach and combat coughs.

This is how, for centuries, the licorice root has been a popular ingredient for all kinds of supposedly beneficial remedies. The licorice root itself was eaten and drinks were made from it. In Italy, during the late Middle Ages, they started with a production process that would form the basis of modern licorice.

The world’s first licorice factory

In Calabria, southern Italy, they call the licorice root radice dolce or sweet root. In Calabria and Sicily, the radice dolce was first ground and boiled down to a black paste. This black paste was poured into blocks and laid out to dry until a solid, black plaque remained called block licorice.

Block licorice is still the primary ingredient of all licorice sweets. Around the year 1500, the Amarelli family started trading in licorice root products. They were so successful that Giorgio Amarelli set up a factory in 1731 to make block licorice, leading to his family licorice becoming a mass product. The Amarelli family’s factory is still running today and is the oldest licorice factory in the world. Almost nothing has changed in their recipe. They make tiny, rock-hard licorice candies consisting of nearly 100% licorice root extract. The original variety is still available and has a hint of bay leaf (this comes from the production process where bay leaves are used to prevent the block licorice pieces from sticking together.) Take a look in the drugstore; they usually have some cans of Amarelli.

From medicine to candy

Block licorice was a tried and tested base ingredient for remedies to help sore throats and coughs. It was particularly popular in the Netherlands and England. One of the people who incorporated Italian block licorice into his remedies was the English pharmacist, George Dunhill. Dunhill has sold medicinal products for infections, stomach ulcers and colds, since 1760. However, it wasn’t until he started adding sugar that sales really took off. Dunhill’s creations then became more than medicines; they became sweets.

Popular thanks to a Dutch flu

Licorice was also gaining popularity in the Netherlands. One of the licorice factories established in the 19th century was the Venco licorice factory. They also took advantage of the supposed medicinal effects. In 1890, when everyone in Amsterdam caught a cold, there was a run on the black gold; licorice sales in the Netherlands gained a momentum. This trend has never gone away. In Italy they like the pure product, licorice root extract, with as few additives as possible. In the Netherlands, we love all the different varieties. We add salmiac salt for spice, sugar for sweetness, Arabic gum for chewiness, potato starch to make it softer and beeswax to make it shiny. We have licorice, honey licorice, double-salt licorice, salmiac licorice, mint licorice, mildly salty licoricebay leaf licorice, griotten licorice, you-name-it-licorice.

The Best Licorice Ever

The best of all these licorices remained debatable until 2015 when Klepper Sr. decided to make an anniversary licorice to mark his 25th year on the Alkmaar market. The anniversary licorice had to be the most delicious ever. Together with Klepper Jr., he enters the laboratory. After a few weeks of experimenting, they succeeded, and the best tasting licorice ever was born. Klepper & Klepper’s customers agree with them; this is indeed the most delicious licorice ever.

What’s more, it’s gluten-free and gelatin-free. With more and more people looking for gluten-free and gelatin-free products, it was clear to Klepper & Klepper what to call their licorice, The Best Licorice Ever. The rest is history, as they say, and that history (the history of The Best Licorice Ever) can be found here.