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Seabourn Club Herald Vol. 22.1 March 2012 : Page 48

Barry Mason/Alamy Grapes &Grains

Grapes & Grains

Camper English

The Other Absinthe

French pastis packs the legendary spirit’s anise flavor — without the controversial punch.

If asked to picture an archetypal French citizen, you might conjure an image of a young artist in a striped shirt with a baguette tucked beneath his arm, a tres-chic executive in a designer dress hurrying to a meeting or perhaps a beret-wearing whitehaired gentleman whiling away the hours at an outdoor café. In the latter scene, our gentleman is likely sipping from a glass of milky white liquid — pastis — one of the most popular alcoholic beverages consumed in France. Pastis is an anise liqueur with added herbs and spices, often associated with Provence but made all over France and in different countries called by different names.

One hundred years ago, our café scene would probably look much the same as it does now. The clothing would be different — the men might be wearing dark suits and the women would be wearing long elegant dresses and elaborate hats out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting — and the drink on the table would most likely be pastis’ predecessor: absinthe.

Fashion may have evolved slowly from then until now but the transition between the absinthe and pastis in the glass was rather abrupt. Due to fuel needs for the war as well as the supposed psychosis-inducing properties of absinthe, the country’s most fashionable spirit was outlawed in 1915.

Absinthe typically contains anise, wormwood, hyssop and other herbal ingredients and is often bottled at a very high proof, up to about 75 percent alcohol. Its strength was likely the cause of the reported problems with the drink, but the wormwood ingredient took the blame.

Five years after the absinthe ban, the French government permitted wormwood-free anise drinks back on the market, as long as their alcoholic strength was below 30 percent. Over the next decades, the limits on alcohol level were raised to 45 percent.

At that time, and with these restrictions, anise liqueurs proliferated. Some absinthe makers that had closed after the ban, including Pernod, began manufacturing anise liqueurs instead. Pernod never adopted the name pastis, a synonym of the word “mixture” or “mess.” The first to do that was Ricard, which launched in 1932 and is still the best-selling spirit in France. In fact, Ricard had sold over a billion bottles by the 1980s.

Pastis and French anise liqueurs usually derive their primary flavor from star anise from China, though other anise flavors like aniseed, licorice and fennel are sometimes present. Recipes are always closely guarded secrets, but other ingredients found in pastis include rosemary, lemon verbena, sage and thyme.

Ricard adds more Middle Eastern ingredients and has a spicier flavor, while Pernod is a little more citrusy. These two brands were fierce competitors for decades in France, but eventually merged to form Pernod-Ricard in the 1970s. Now, it’s the second-largest liquor company in the world, owning brands such as Absolut vodka and Chivas Regal blended scotch whisky.

They seem to have split the anise drink market in order to conquer the world; in France, the Ricard brand now dominates, whereas Pernod is bigger as an export product.

When absinthe was the fashionable spirit of the day, it was often consumed during the “green hour” after work, what we call happy hour today. Pastis too is often consumed at this time, but as an aperitif before dinner to open the palate.

Pastis differs from absinthe not just in its lack of wormwood and lower alcohol content, but it is also sweetened with sugar.Thus the absinthe ritual — dripping water from a glass fountain over a sugar cube placed on a specialty slotted spoon sitting on the rim of the glass — is not necessary for pastis.

Typically French cafés serve pastis as a small pour in a glass, alongside a carafe of cold water. The drinker determines his or her own quantity of water to pour into the drinking glass, but a five-to-one ratio of water to pastis is considered standard. Purists do not add ice. The pastis from the bottle starts off clear or amber, but when water is added essential oils come out of the solution and the mixture turns cloudy. This is known as the louche effect.

Absinthe is again legal in the European Union, but the French have not abandoned their hundred-year pastis habit in favor of it. However, consumption of the spirit has been waning.Like sherry in Spain and sake in Japan, pastis is often considered a beverage of the older generation, and younger drinkers are not necessarily inclined to follow their parents and grandparents’ old-fashioned beverage choices.

Though more than 100 million liters of pastis are still consumed in France annually, the number is declining slightly.To compensate, one brand, Pastis 51, is trying to rebrand it as a hip, cooling summer drink by suggesting it be diluted further (eight-to-one instead of five-to-one) and serving it over ice in a large wine glass.

It is too soon to know if this will turn the younger generation into pastis drinkers, but perhaps one day to our French archetypes of the artistic youth and chic executive we’ll add the image of a jet-setting hipster sunning himself at a poolside dance party, a goblet of milky white pastis in hand.

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