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Life in Rural France

Living the French Dream….The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

a glass of pastis with star of anise

An Insider’s Guide on how to drink Pastis

A Toast to Pastis: Drinking the Anise Flavoured Liqueur in France

One of the things I love about living in France is discovering more about what French life is really like. And drinking pastis is definitely a part of it. You’d be hard pushed to go in a bar and not see a glass of pastis.

The first time I came across this aniseed drink was in a local bar in Verteuil, near where I live in the Charente. I was intrigued because it seemed to be quite popular with the French. So I asked the barman to tell me more and he promptly gave me a potted history, and of course, told me to try some.

Now I’m a lover of aniseed, liquorice and anything like that. In fact, one of my favourite sweets as a kid in the 80s was aniseed balls. You could go into our local sweet shop and you’d see them, cough candy, sherbet pips, jelly babies and loads more.

Those were the days when all sweets were in jars on shelves behind the counter. The sweets were weighed out on big scales and popped into paper bags.

The village where the movie Chocolat was filmed, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, makes anis pastels. Now known around France they continue to be popular.

As I grew up I also loved Pernod, another aniseed drink my Mum used to have in the cupboard. So I was happy to give it a try and I have to say, I’m now a convert.

History of Pastis

It all started in the early 19th century in Marseille, southern France, when absinthe was the drink of the moment. Also an aniseed drink, it had a very high alcohol content and was perceived as dangerous by the French government.

Apparently the wormwood used in the drink caused hallucinations and possible madness. So in 1915 they put a ban on it. In their wisdom they also banned any alcoholic drink of 16% or above.

This ban paved the way for pastis. With absinthe now banned the people of Marseilles looked for an alternative aniseed apéritif. They started mixing their own using a variety of aromatic plants, anise and licorice.

A poster advertising absinthe

The word “pastis” is derived from the Provençal word for “mixture,” and pastis is essentially a mixture of anise and other herbs and spices.

In 1920 the government lifted the ban, but only for aniseed based alcoholic drinks. And no more than 30% proof.

It was at this time that a local Marseille man, Paul Ricard, developed his own version of pastis. He named the drink after himself and started to market it, and it was an immediate success.

Although, it was strictly speaking illegal as it was 40% rather than the legalised 30%. So when the government relaxed the rules again and allowed alcoholic content of up to 45%, Ricard raised his accordingly.

Today it’s known as “Ricard, the real Pastis de Marseille”.

How is pastis made?

There are many different recipes and each is a closely guarded secret. But each one has two essential ingredients, liquorice and anise.

The process of making pastis involves a combination of maceration and distillation. Other herbs and spices, such as fennel, coriander, cloves, and cardamom, can also be added to the mixture.

The mixture is then distilled and the resulting liqueur is aged in oak barrels for several months before it is bottled.

How to drink pastis

Pastis is typically served in a tall glass accompanied by a jug of water and a side order of ice. This is done so people can mix their own drink according to how they like it. In fact, it’s almost become a bit of a ritual amongst the French.

However, the steps are clear. The pastis is poured into a glass, then the water, and finally the ice.

As the water is added it turns from a clear amber colour to a cloudy milky hue. The ratio of water to pastis can vary, but the most common ratio is one part pastis to five parts water.

The whole experience is wonderful and if you love aniseed and licorice as much as I do, you’ll love this drink.

When to drink pastis

Pastis is usually served as an apéritif, which is a French tradition of enjoying a light alcoholic drink before a meal. Apparently it helps to stimulate the appetite and prepares the stomach for a meal. And certainly in the South of France they’d never drink it after a meal.

Pétanque, a French game similar to boules, is often played with a glass of pastis in hand. In fact, it is not uncommon for players to take a sip before each throw. 

Edith Piaf was reportedly very fond of the drink and Ernest Hemingway is said to have created the cocktail “Death in the Afternoon” by adding pastis to his champagne.

Popular brands of pastis

The main producer in France is Pernod-Ricard which was a merger of two competing companies in 1975. And their best known brands are Pernod 51 and of course, Ricard.

If you prefer slightly sweeter drinks then you’re likely to prefer Ricard due to the higher liquorice content. Pernod tends to be dryer as the flavour comes more from the fennel and star anise. Other brands include Henri Bardouin, Casanis and Duval.

Bottoms up! Tchin Tchin! Santé!

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