Illustration: Karl Gustafson

My first taste of black licorice was as recent as 2012, when a friend offered me a Twizzler Bite as we sat watching the re-release of Titanic. I’d been pleasantly surprised by how much I still enjoyed the movie, so I figured I might be pleasantly surprised by the taste of this oft-maligned candy as well.

It was a staggering miscalculation on my part.

But I do get it: The people who enjoy black licorice are not contrarian freaks, but rather connoisseurs of subtlety who deserve our respect, if not our comprehension. (I know it’s far less fun to think of them this way, and I’m sorry.) These are our family, our friends, folks who couldn’t possibly fake their adoration for such an outmoded and divisive flavor. When it comes to candy, millions of avid customers can’t be wrong; in fact, maybe they’re the enlightened ones. Maybe I can go so far as to train my palate to appreciate this medicinal, botanical flavor profile. Is such an achievement worth the unpleasant, tooth-blackening journey it’d take to get there?

Let’s find out!


Photo: Marnie Shure

Advertisement

I live in a major metropolitan city whose economy can support businesses as specific as Sockerbit, a Swedish confectionery that boasts a zero-artificial-ingredients approach to candy-making. And because its wares are inspired by Swedish tastes, the shop is a veritable avalanche of licorice. Not just the waxy, Twizzlerish kind we’re used to stateside, either—the Swedes go for salty licorice (known as salmiak), flavored with ammonium chloride. I’m feeling bold enough to purchase a single piece. I bring it home and wait a week to take a bite.

Photo: Marnie Shure

The verdict? Not immediately identifiable as candy in any sense. It’s a powerfully savory flavor whose waves of saltiness strike the palate in quick succession like a cobra, and only the texture gives it away as something to be enjoyed more like a candy than an equally salty snack chip. Its taste lingers. Unfortunately, I am committed to cleansing my palate only with another item from the Sockerbit bag.

Advertisement

It was perhaps unwise to go from zero to 60 along the road to black licorice appreciation. Luckily, I bought some less daring varietals, such as the sorbisar, which promises “half raspberry, half licorice, and all sour!” I pop it in my mouth whole.

Now this is candy. All tucked away as the second act of a sour raspberry coin, the licorice is the perfect final note that mutes the sting of the sour coating and the tart sweetness of the fruit so that you aren’t left with that intense Jolly Rancher–type aftertaste. It’s like the teeniest scoop of lemon sorbet at the end of a course.

So now we have some useful data: fruit + licorice = good. How about chocolate? Namely Dumle, a toffee licorice center beneath a robe of chocolate? Yep, it’s fantastic, too! The center is chewy and gooey without being too sticky, and the licorice again serves as a wonderful counterbalance to often overly sweet milk chocolate candies. I begin to hypothesize that the licorice haters among us might have simply miscast licorice as a solo act, when it does its best work as part of an ensemble. Yes, I think, that’s all it is—a big misunderstanding! I confidently bite into a salta hallon (salty licorice with a raspberry cream interior) and nearly choke on the rush of ammonium chloride. A newfound understanding doesn’t mean I can approach these things with anything less than caution just yet.

Advertisement


Photo: Marnie Shure

Caramel licorice is next. I take a tentative nibble off a beautiful golden braided kolaskruvar, and find that caramel, too, is a lovely place for licorice to hide. Licorice is caramel’s perfect inverse, taking the cloying edge off of candy where caramel applies it too liberally. One bite (I’m slowing down) of a marshmallow caramel-and-licorice “elephant’s foot” does even more to confirm this.

Advertisement

As it turns out, the United States candy-industrial complex knows us better than we know ourselves. American licorice is sweeter to begin with, often rolled in sugar like the black Chuckle (pretty pleasant!), or enrobed in soft and distracting texture, like Crows (not as pleasant, but I appreciate the effort!). American confectioneries don’t even try pushing the salty stuff on us. Still, there was one stateside licorice staple I hadn’t yet tried, one that’s utterly canon and utterly reviled: Snaps.

If salmiak doesn’t register as candy because of its saltiness, Snaps don’t because they look and feel like foam pencil grippers. To presume their consistency is some kind of mistake would be charitable. The mouthfeel is akin to the center of a Blow Pop if the gum was left abandoned on the stick to dry in the sun.

And yet…

Photo: Marnie Shure

Advertisement

No, I certainly don’t love or even enjoy Snaps. But as I chew (and chew and chew and chew, like chaw), I can’t help but think about the fans that have kept this little candy afloat since its 1930s inception, even reversing the company’s 2002 decision to terminate them—a love so pure that bottom lines shifted to once again accommodate this little candy that could. Maybe Snaps’ flat flavors and plodding texture could be seen instead as reliable, stalwart, and constant. Something that octogenarians can look at and think, there now, some things have managed to stay the same.

Insiders have confirmed that Snaps are on their way out at the end of 2018, for real this time. I’ll never make it through this bag I bought, but still, I hope they’re wrong. Licorice, I’ve come to learn, has its noble and deserved place in the candy landscape, and to uproot it leaves nothing but a vacuum for truly offensive and gimmicky selections to take up its mantle: the Baby Bottle Pops and barkTHINS of the world, sweets that exist to leech your dollars sooner than deliver a crafted flavor experience. Love it or hate it, licorice has never tried to be anything beyond what it is, and what it is remains an enigma whose appeal I can neither unravel nor deny. When I next pass by the allsorts or Good & Plenty on the shelf, I will hold my tongue. For dust I am, and to dust I shall return, but licorice—specifically the bag of Snaps on my kitchen counter—will outlast us all.