Frank O'Kelly Written by Frank O'Kelly

Liquorice: how different sugars impact flavour and production

Though records date from antiquity, liquorice plants were first grown in the UK at a monastery in Pontefract, Yorkshire, having been brought over from the Middle East at the start of the twelfth century. Liquorice confectionery was then born in the UK’s largest county several centuries later and the sweets have grown in popularity ever since.

This blog explores the modern variations of liquorice, explaining how today’s confectionery products use different sugars and their attributes to impact flavour and enhance production.

What is liquorice?

Liquorice is named after the plant from which it takes its distinctive flavour. The root of the liquorice plant used to be chewed to release the anethole flavour, which is also found in anise and fennel. Before the popularity of mint increased, this was used as a breath freshener in the UK, a scent that is still commonly used in this way in many areas of the world.

Licorice root on white background

Freshly harvested liquorice root.

Liquorice confectionery was born in eighteenth century Yorkshire when the flavour had been extracted and was first mixed with sugar. Its unique combination of powerful flavour and sweetness saw it soon become a popular sweet in the UK, before spreading across Europe and eventually the world. Different palates and cultures mean that a huge variety of liquorice confectionery products are now on the market, with saltier flavours in mainland Europe compared to much sweeter versions in the US.

Common features of liquorice products:
• Anethole flavour
• Addition of sugar to enhance the sweetness of the plant root
• Use of a binding agent to create a solid or chewy product
• Traditional dark colour from extracts of the plant root

Liquorice root is typically processed close to the place it is grown to prevent expense wasted on the transport of unnecessary parts. Once liquorice roots are cut, dried and sold to the processor, they are stripped and made into pulp with water. The pulp is then filtered and thickened into an extract which is dried into blocks, known as block liquorice. From there the concentrated block liquorice is transported to the countries and companies that use it in their products.

Below, we explore some of the liquorice products that are popular in the UK and Europe, explaining how altering the sugar constituents enables manufacturers to create a host of different liquorice confectionery.

Black liquorice

The first product that undoubtedly springs to mind at the mention of ‘liquorice’ is traditional black liquorice that comes in ropes or wheels and takes both its flavour and colour from the root of the liquorice plant. Modern production processes that focus on efficient, large scale production may use other ingredients to create or enhance the liquorice flavour, including anise oil.

Most of these processes involve the use of straight sucrose and cane molasses. As with many confectionery products, straight sucrose is used as it can dissolve easily, has the benefit of cost reduction and does not significantly affect the texture and mouthfeel of the product. Cane molasses is typically used as its robust flavour and dark colour enhance the colour and strong flavour profile of traditional black liquorice while also serving to give the product its characteristic glossy shine.

In regions with milder palettes such as the UK and the US, some manufacturers may also opt for lighter flavours. To achieve this, they often molasses for treacle to develop a more rounded flavour profile while maintaining the dark colour. Furthermore, those developing new formulations will be looking to use ingredients that extend shelf life while still reducing processing times and maintaining a desirable candy taste. This unique combination makes partial invert sugar syrup the ideal component ingredient.

Red and Black Liquorice spirals.

Liquorice is sold in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, including sticks, swirls and tubes.

Red liquorice

Red liquorice rarely contains any block liquorice or extract from the plant at all, but it is still made in largely the same way as black liquorice, with sugar and binding agents, as well as any additional colourants and flavourings. It may share some characteristics with black liquorice, but usually, it is flavoured with fruit extracts and flavourings instead.

The most common flavour for red liquorice is strawberry, but it is also commercially produced in cherry, raspberry and cinnamon flavours. More popular in the UK and US are the fruit flavours, whereas cinnamon is more favoured in mainland Europe.

It is worth noting that red liquorice tends to have a lower proportion of flour than black liquorice, which is used to bind the ingredients. Instead, like many other confectionery products, red liquorice is manufactured using glucose syrup which also acts as a binding agent. Specifications usually use straight sucrose and, if commercially manufactured, partial invert sugar syrup for the same reasons as black liquorice.

Depending on the specific application, some red liquorice products may still use molasses for its colour and flavour but again in lower proportions. This enables it to have hints of the molasses without overpowering the fruit flavourings.

Liquorice allsorts

Liquorice allsorts fondant and liquorice sweets or candy

Colourful liquorice allsorts comprise a range of different ingredients and flavours. 

Most popular in the UK and The Netherlands, liquorice allsorts are produced and exported the world over and can be found as far away as South Africa, Australia and Canada. The confectionery contains sweets that are a combination of liquorice, fondants and jellies, flavoured with coconut, aniseed and fruit.

Straight sucrose, molasses and glucose syrup are typically the core sugar ingredients used to manufacture allsorts, though some manufacturers prefer to again substitute molasses for treacle. Caramelised sugar syrup is also used for colour development in the brown allsorts. Of course, as each allsort is different, they each use different proportions of sugar ingredients and flavourings.

Toffee liquorice

Black shiny Liquorice Toffee isolated against white background.

Traditional toffee liquorice is particularly popular in the UK.

Most people in the UK know toffee liquorice as a sweet with a chewy toffee texture but the anethole liquorice flavour. There is another variety, though, sometimes known as Dutch caramel liquorice. This variety resembles some liquorice allsorts in that they are long tubes with a dark liquorice middle, surrounded by a golden, sweet toffee flavoured fondant cover.

The toffee liquorice popular in the UK is essentially a toffee that has been darkened and flavoured. For this reason, it contains straight sucrose and condensed milk, as well as black treacle. These sugar products combine to make the product functional, with the rounded flavour of black treacle particularly complementing the toffee flavour.

The sugar products used in Dutch caramel liquorice are similar. But the main difference is that the black liquorice in the centre is highly likely to contain cane molasses so that it can offset the sweeter toffee flavour in the outer coating.

Salmiak Liquorice

Close up of sugared salty liquorice. Also know as salmiak or salmiac liquorice. In Finnish it's known as salmiakki.

Salmiak liquorice is one of the most sought-after confections on the continent. 

The Nordics and Benelux regions are some of the biggest consumers and exporters of liquorice in the world. Each nation has its own unique styles and preferences, but there is some overlap in preferences across these regions: salmiak liquorice.

In salmiak liquorice, ammonium chloride (salmiak) is added to traditional black liquorice to build a salt flavour, with the strength of this flavour depending on the application and therefore varying from mild to strong. The mouthfeel of salmiak liquorice is intense at first, followed by a robust black liquorice flavour. As a result, salmiak liquorice mainly uses cane molasses to produce this effect while also developing a dark colour and binding the ingredients together.

A layman’s introduction to the liquorice market

Liquorice molasses

Cane molasses is the pure sugar ingredient that is most widely suited to these different liquorice applications because its extensive range of natural functional properties, including its high mineral content, enable it to develop a better quality end product.

However, it is important to remember that pure sugars and syrups are component ingredients. This means that adjustments are often made to suit a manufacturer’s specific application or production process. It’s all relative.

Ragus manufactures pure sugars and syrups for the confectionery industry. Contact a member of our customer services team on +44 (0)1753 575353 or sales@ragus.co.uk to find out more about how our high-quality, consistent and natural sugar products can enhance your application. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, follow Ragus on LinkedIn.