Juan Carlos I may be the king of Spain, but in Chinchón, humble anise rules. Wandering down the winding streets of this tiny town about 30 miles southeast of Madrid, I'm confronted at every turn by anís, the anise-flavored alcoholic beverage that has been made here for more than three hundred years—and
that has put Chinchón on the gastronomic map. Bottles beckon from store windows. A truck thunders down the narrow lane, its sides emblazoned with the words ANÍS DE CHINCHÓN. Is it my imagination, or does the very air smell of anise?
In a tavern on Chinchón's Plaza Mayor, I order a glass of dry anís and carry it to a table outside. Balconied three-story houses surround the irregularly shaped square, their dark-green arcades lending it a stage-set quaintness. As I savor the brawny licorice aroma of the clear liquid before me, I look past low walls to the temporary ring still set up from yesterday's bullfight. Sipping my anís, I'm astonished at the bull-like kick it packs: This is not the syrupy, sticky-sweet liqueur Americans think of as anisette, but a vigorous distillation, redolent with anise and formidably alcoholic—at least 70 proof.
Later, I watch as an old man wends his way across the stones; one hand holds a cane, the other a suspiciously bottle-shaped package. I follow him past shops arrayed with long strings of garlic (another specialty of the region), chunks of manchego cheese floating in olive oil, and local wine. We arrive almost together at a tavern whose sign declares bueno, bonito, barato—"good, nice, cheap". This time, I order sweet anís. Lower in alcohol than the dry, it is clean in flavor, with a sweetness that is not at all cloying.
Curious about the production of this wondrous spirit, I've arranged a visit to La Alcoholera de Chinchón, the larger and much better known of the town's two distilleries (the other is Destilería de Chinchón)—which churns out more than 2 million bottles a year. As I approach the low-slung stucco building, the heady fragrance is palpable—almost overwhelming. Wading through the intoxicating air, I walk through the entryway, past an antique copper still and displays of graceful petioles of anise. The fragile appearance of this ancient plant (Pimpinella anisum), a member of the carrot family, belies a stubborn strength: Anís—the word is used for both the herb and the liqueur—grows so prolifically and tenaciously that locals call it matalahúva, "grape killer", for its effect on nearby vines.
The dry, slender stalks of the anise plant are topped with billowy seed clusters; these are harvested each August, macerated with water and neutral alcohol, and sweetened according to the type of anís being made. What makes Chinchón's product unique is that only local plants, free from extraneous odors and flavor components, are used—achieving a purity of taste that has won anís de chinchón more than a century of acclaim, from the Grand Diplôme d'Honneur at the 1889 International Exposition in Paris to a certification of geographical denomination from the European Union in 1989.
Though La Alcoholera's anís de chinchón is imported into the United States, another brand of Spanish anisette, Anís del Mono—made in Badalona, north of Barcelona—is more widely distributed here (though only in its sweet form). But to a Spaniard, anís means "Chinchón" (and a request for a chinchón is universally understood as a request for the town's anís)—and the peaceful village itself is a favorite weekend destination for Madrileños. In the 1970s, in fact, Chinchón was declared a national monument for its medieval architecture—the centerpiece of which is the town castle, within whose walls La Alcoholera used to operate before moving outside the town borders. "People are finally coming to see the village," says Felipe de Basa, director of the Chinchón Tourist Board. "They used to come only to drink anís."
Still, it's pretty hard to avoid. At the Parador de Chinchón, a charming hotel in a restored monastery, I find out just how ubiquitous it is: I round off a meal of garlic soup and succulent roast lamb with (no surprise here) a bombón helado flambeado al anís—vanilla ice cream coated in chocolate, doused in anís, and set aflame, creating a landslide of rich, dark sweetness. The chocolate crisps in the heat, the ice cream melts away to reveal a core of honey, and the now-familiar aroma explodes across the table. Postprandial coffee at the Parador is accompanied by a plate of yemas, those delectable convent-made egg-yolk confections for which Spain is famous. My waiter watches eagerly as I bite into their silken sweetness, and smiles at my delight as I detect an unmistakable savor. "Yes," he confirms proudly. "Here everything is scented with the perfume of anís."