You can walk into any bar in France and be assured of a familiar sight – a sign or a jug (the type you see at every French flea market) advertising pastis. And if it’s a hot day, there’s sure to be a Frenchman or two sitting at a table watching the world go by with a glass of cloudy pastis to hand…
History of pastis
Pastis is an aniseed based an alcoholic drink. It’s mostly associated with the south of France and especially Marseille where the drink was commercialised by a local man, Paul Ricard.
A few years earlier, the drink of choice for the French was absinthe, another aniseed flavoured drink. But with a very high alcohol content and rumours that it induced madness, the French Government banned it in 1915. They also banned alcoholic drinks that were more than 16% proof.
In Marseille, the locals started mixing their own aniseed based drink for the traditional aperitif: star anis, water, liquorice and herbs. Aniseed flavoured drinks had been popular in the Mediterranean countries for many years, for instance ouzo and raki.
Ricard took the recipe for this “Marseille absinthe”, adapted it and started selling it. In 1932 the Government lifted the ban on strong alcohol (though not absinthe). Ricard called the 40% drink: pastis. It was based on the Provencal word “pastisson” meaning blend/mixture, like pastiche. It was an enormous success. Perfect to accompany a game of petanque, relax with in the sun, as an aperitif – and oh so French.
To this day, it’s still one of the most popular drinks in France.
How to drink pastis
These days pastis is bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV pastis or 45% ABV pastis de Marseille. While pastis was originally produced from whole herbs, like most spirits at the time of its creation, modern versions are typically prepared by mixing a base alcohol with commercially prepared flavourings and caramel colouring.
Pastis can be drunk pure, but is normally diluted with water. Generally it’s about four to seven parts water to one part pastis. But you’ll find it’s often served neat, accompanied by a jug of water so the drinker can mix according to personal preference. Ice cubes generally don’t come with the water – you’ll need to ask for those. Only pop one cube in, two at most.
Mixing your pastis has gained almost ritual status.
Pastis contains an aromatic compound, anethole, which is hydrophobic, And that changes the liqueur’s appearance from dark transparent yellow to milky soft yellow. Never add the ice first as that causes the anethole to crystalise – a totally rookie mistake! And some French in the south, will be horrified if you drink it after you’ve eaten – it’s strictly an aperitif for them, not a digestif!
It’s also popular in cocktails. Ernest Hemingway is credited with creating “Death in the Afternoon”, Champagne with a dash of pastis! And the most popular pastis cocktail in France is called Le Perroquet – the Parrot, thanks to its bright green colour. Pastis pastis, water and a dash of mint syrup.
A stonking 130 million litres of pastis are sold every year in France, an astonishing 2 litres for every adult in France! Cheers…