Black licorice (or "real licorice", if you're nasty) is, like many of those old-timey candies from the days before high-fructose corn syrup, something of an acquired taste—an acquired taste I'd highly recommend acquiring. Beyond the obvious benefits that come from expanding one's food repertoire, black licorice also offers two key advantages:
First, it tends to pack enough of a flavor punch that you aren't going to sit down and eat a pound of the stuff, saving you calories and money, while still supplying a junk food fix.
Second, you usually don't have to share. In fact, you can offer, and everybody will turn you down, so you still look like a good person even though you're really being a giant, selfish candy hoarder.
But where to start? I found four excellent entry points to the world of licorice at Minneapolis candy store Sugar Sugar.
Pontefract Cakes: Keepin' it old-school
Look and Texture: About the shape and size of a quarter—but thicker. Made since 1614, they come stamped with an image of England's Pontefract Castle, which makes an American feel terribly important while eating them. The candy is dense and chewy, more like a Swedish Fish in texture than a gummi worm.
Flavor: Pontefract Cakes are sweetened with molasses, and I definitely get more of that flavor off them than licorice/anise. It's almost like eating a gummi version of gingerbread.
Griotten: Tiny and delicious
Look and Texture: Made in Holland, Griotten look more like a cube of raw sugar than licorice candy. They're very small, light brown and coated in a layer of sugar. The texture is … different. In a good way. Light and airy and almost a little springy, it's like eating a slightly stale—but still nom-worthy—marshmallow.
Flavor: If there ever was licorice I could eat by the bagful, this would be it. Griotten have a caramel flavor on first bite, while the not-too-pungent licorice-ness kicks in with chewing.
Dutchies: Perhaps not for the faint of heart
Look and Texture: Big, jet-black diamonds coated in sparkly sugar, Dutchies have a presence even before you start to eat them. The texture reminds me of the spice drops my father-in-law loves. (A side note: If spice drops were a person, they'd be Harvey Fierstein in very elaborate drag. Discuss.)
Flavor: Dutchies are a licorice punch in the face. A shot of ouzo in candy form. There's something very Mentholatum-ish going on here, too, as the vapors work their way into your sinuses. Your tongue gets a bit numb. I still like them, but two at a sitting is plenty. Your mileage may vary.
Koppers: Easing you in via liberal doses of chocolate
Look and Texture: Perhaps the inspiration behind Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls, Koppers are a piece of very firm, very black licorice surrounded by a layer of dark chocolate. They're about the size of a gumball.
Flavor: Can i describe something as being like a darkest pit of hell and mean it in a good way? These things are rather like Guinness in candy form. Or maybe a Guinness float. Sweet and bitter and savory all mingled together. Delicious.
Photo taken by multi-talented journalist (and my regular partner-in-crime), Leah Shaffer.