Do you know what I wish I was doing right now?
I wish I was sitting at an outdoor café table watching the world pass by in all its curious shoes and slowly and happily sipping pastis. Perhaps I have a book at my side that I can glance at occasionally, or perhaps a good friend with whom I can amiably pass the time of day sits across from me. But most of all there should be pastis.
What am I talking about? Pastis–better known in this country under its brand names Pernod and Ricard, among others–is an anise and licorice root flavored liqueur and aperitif from France, usually about 40-45% alcohol per volume. It is hugely popular in France (where 130 million liters are sold each year, or over 2 liters per every single inhabitant) but is actually part of a tradition of Mediterranean anise liqueurs such as ouzo, sambuca, arak, raki and mastika.
For many years the French made their own pastis at home, but its success on the commercial market began 17 years after absinthe was outlawed in most of the western world. Indeed its commercial popularity seems to be a direct result of absinthe’s ban.
Absinthe, you may remember, was a very strong anise-based liqueur and was an immensely popular drink in 19th century France, especially amongst artists and writers who believed that it could inspire them to be more creative. In fact it was often referred to as “the green muse.” The drink also contained the herb wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, from which it received its name) which was–incorrectly as it happened–blamed for hallucinations, violence, blindness and insanity. Wormwood, they said, is what drove Van Gogh to cut off his ear. It is what caused the poet Verlaine to shoot his friend Rimbaud. Not to mention the troubled lives of August Strindberg, Edvard Münch and hundreds of others of the great and not so great. Hence the ban throughout most of the 20th century in much of the western world.
But in 1932–17 years after its ban–both the Pernod and Ricard companies decided to make a less strong version of absinthe without the wormwood and with a slightly different type of anise. Each producer thereafter developed their own secret recipe of herbs and spices in making their pastis so that personal
preference becomes the deciding factor in which you buy.
The rest is history.
So how do you go about enjoying pastis? Well, first of all relax. Put the worries and cares of the day behind you. For preference you should not be alone in a room but rather somewhere where you can, even if alone, watch and enjoy the social or the natural world in all its glory.
Now, to one part pastis add about five parts cool spring water. (Pastis can be served with ice if you must, but is not traditional.) Watch how the liquid turns hypnotically from dark transparent yellow to a soft milky yellow/white with the addition of the water. Sip it slowly, take a deep breath, smile inwardly to yourself and remember that troubles may come and troubles may go but life itself is a fine thing when you know how to enjoy it. And pastis is there to help.
Bill Stobbs, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Wine Supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills