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In the past decade or so I have lived abroad in several countries. One of the aspects of living abroad is sharing (or telling about) the food from where you’re from. The Dutch stroopwafels (syrup waffles) so far have been a 100% hit, a true cloud pleaser. However, those stroopwafels I bring are almost always accompanied by another ‘treat’ (at least, that’s what I would call it): Dutch black liquorice. So far my success rate under those who tried it, has got to be below 5%. There have been a few polite ‘that’s interesting’ remarks, but the majority of people admit that it’s definitely not their cup of tea, if not downright disgusting. Which is fine by me, it means more ‘rare’ Dutch liquorice for me!
If there is one food that I would truly call Dutch food it will have to be Dutch liquorice, which is called ‘drop’ in Dutch. Even though sweets with some similarities are eaten in Scandinavia, the Dutch version is pretty unique. And don’t confuse Dutch liquorice with ‘regular’ black liquorice that you can buy in most countries. Dutch liquorice, drop, really is its own thing.
What is drop (Dutch liquorice)?
Drop encompasses quite a large range of sweets. Generally, those sweets called drop contain a strong flavour of both liquorice and salmiak (more on those later). Since there are a lot of types of ‘drop’, they can be used in widely varying ratios (and sometimes it’s just one of the two). Other common flavours of drop are honey, anise seed or mint, however, these are optional and there are plenty of drop varieties without any of these.
Dutch liquorice isn’t sold in long strands. Instead, almost all of it is sold in individual, bite size pieces. The shapes are used to distinguish between the different varieties and flavour. Since the majority of drop is pitch black, there really isn’t another easy way to distinguish them. Several of those shapes are used very consistently, even by different between brands, to indicate the type of drop you’re buying. If you buy drop with shapes of a farm theme, you’re likely eating a hard salty variety (boederijdrop). Drop shaped like coins is also hard, but tends to be sweet. In other cases the shape identifies the brand, as is the case for ‘Autodrop’ whose shapes are cars (auto = car).
Sweet vs Salt
Dutch drop tends to be either sweet or salty. That does not mean that salty drop doesn’t contain any sugar, nor that sweet drop doesn’t contain any salt. Both types contain both to quite a decent amount. The name is merely the overruling flavour of the two. In reality, sweet and salty drop may well contain the same amount of salt. The sweet liquorice will simply contain more sugars and sweet glycyrrihizin (see next section) to make up for the salt!
Soft vs Hard
The other major distinction you’ll find is soft vs hard drop. The ‘hard’ style requires a decent chew to bite into. They literally are harder than the soft version. Even though the soft version is generally more chewy than a ‘regular’ gummy sweet, you don’t need as much work from your molars to work your way through compared to the hard style!
These differences can be tweaked quite easily by manufacturers by changing the ratio and quantity of gelling agents (the ingredients that ‘set’ the drop). Flavour and texture don’t have to be related at all. Any soft or hard type of drop can be either sweet or salty.
Drop flavour – Liquorice & Salmiak
Dutch liquorice is drop thanks to two main flavours: liquorice & salmiak. Different varieties of drop will vary in their ratio of the two to create the flavour profile the producer is after.
Liquorice & glycyrrihizin
You might be surprised to learn that liquorice-like products are mostly eaten in Northern Europe and Russia (with the Netherlands leading the charge in volume per head). However, the liquorice plant from which that liquorice ingredient comes from, is grown in more Southern, warmer, countries (the same is true for cardamon!).
Liquorice (with the Latin name Glycyrrhiza glabra) contains a sweet ingredient called glycyrrhizic acid (also called glycyrrhizin). Glycyrrhizin is a lot sweeter than sucrose, up to 100 times so. However, it isn’t just sweet, it also has the potent liquorice flavour which is you won’t see it used commonly.
The glycyrrhizin is made from the root of the liquorice plant. After harvest the root is dried and the glycyrrhizin is extracted from the dried material.
Liquorice root has been used for thousands of years. Before it became just a sweet, it was used as a medicine. This might remind you of marshmallow root for which that was the case as well! Interestingly, liquorice root, when boiled down and extracted also has gelling properties, just like marshmallow root does. You can actually make liquorice, from nothing else but liquorice root.
Salmiak (ammonium salt)
The other common flavour in drop is ‘salmiak’. Salmiak is actually a salt, ammonium chloride (NH4Cl). It generally is the salmiak salt flavour, described as “smacked with a layer of sharp and sour salt dust, then soothed by something bitter and caramel-sweet” (from: Saveur) that puts people off from drop. If you’re not used to the sensation, it can be very weird and disturbing (and particularly hard to swallow).
Candy seems to be one of the few applications in food, if not the only one, for salmiak. The Dutch aren’t the only ones using it though, Scandinavian sweets tend to contain it as well (in Finland under the name salmiakki).
Where this ammonium chloride came from isn’t really clear. It the early 20th century it was used in various Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. Since it (also) started out as a medicine, it likely started out at a pharmacy store and somehow gained the love of us Dutch and fellow Northern Europeans.
Licorice is an acquired taste, but many other cultures have special flavors or ingredients that aren’t necessarily appealing for those who didn’t grow up with them, e.g. mastic in Greece.
What else is in drop?
Apart from sugar (that may be several types), salt and those two flavours, the majority of the other ingredients is there to help give drop that bouncy soft or hard texture. These ingredients are often gelling agents. Gelatin is a common ingredient since it can create a unique bouncy texture that melts quite well in the mouth. It is also use a lot in the generally more acceptable sweets of gummies. Starches are used for a similar reason, to help thicken and set the drop pieces.
A lot of drop also contains some fats as well as ingredients to help the pieces shine (such as beeswax).
How drop is made
A Dutch kids tv show (one of my favorites as a kid!) called Klokhuis made a great episode on how drop is made (in Dutch with English subtitles)!
Bosworth, Marc, Salty liquorice: The not-so-sweet sweet, 2013, BBC, link
Glória, M.B.A. Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), 2003, from: link
Klokhuis, How wordt drop gemaakt, link (YouTube video)
Richdale, A., The Trick to Loving Scandinavian Salt Licorice is to Stop Thinking it’s Candy, 2017, Saveur, link
Stuart, The horrors of Dutch drop, 2014, link ; a hilarious article by a non-Dutch person (of course!)
Van Elzakker, Irene, Voorzichtig met drop, 2008, link
History of Salmiakki salty black licorice (also spelled Salmiak and salmiac), 2008, link