The Licorice Connection on North Moore Street

This advertisement for W.G. Dean & Sons provides rare views of a working factory in what is now Tribeca.

Jan. 07, 2016

Let’s say you were strolling along Washington Street a century ago—a time long before the urban renewal of the 1960s obliterated much of that street in Tribeca—and you noticed that a large building at the corner of North Moore proclaimed its offerings as mustard and licorice. You might have said to yourself, mustard can easily be understood:  it is used in all sorts of cooking, and for some enthusiasts, it is vital to the employment of hot dogs.

But why did W. G. Dean & Son, the proprietors, advertise licorice in such big letters? Were there that many kids yearning to chew on those long rubbery black sticks?

Licorice, it turns out, has intrigued us long before those black and red sticks. An ancient Chinese medical tract referred to it as a “magical plant that imparts youthful vigor to the bodies of aging men,” and Chaucer wrote, “But first he cheweth greyn and licorys/To smellen swete.”

The extract yielding it comes from an herb called Glycyrrhiza glabra that is not uncommon, being found in southern Europe and parts of the United States. But what an extract! It is fifty (yes, 50) times sweeter than cane sugar—put a drop of it in a bottle of water and the liquid would instantly turn sweet. This leads to the use of licorice not only to make the familiar candy we all know but to enhance the sweetness of many other kinds of candy that might not be anywhere near so luscious without it.

Outright confections, however, are just the beginning, for most of the production of licorice extract in this country actually goes to the tobacco industry to improve the flavor of cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco.

It is a valued mask of bitterness as well, used in innumerable medicines to cover up a disagreeable taste, and it is a prominent ingredient of cough syrups and throat lozenges. When you pop a pill you maybe popping licorice in the bargain.

One final surprise. The telltale flavor of licorice that is perceived in the candy sometimes does not come from the Glycyrrihiza extract at all. It comes instead from anise or fennel added at the last moment.

So you might indeed have wondered just what W. G. Dean & Son were cooking up in that building on Washington Street? Unfortunately, we will never know.

This article originally appeared in the 2001 December issue of The Tribeca Trib. It can also be found in 'Tribeca: A Pictorial History' available at Stella, 184 Duane St., and