In this article, you will learn everything you ever wanted to know about pastis. Discover what pastis is, how it is produced and how this spirit with a relatively young history has become a widespread aperitif. Thanks to this article you will also learn how to taste it and find multiple comparisons with other anise-flavoured beverages, from absinthe to anisettes. Finally, we prepared for you a few cocktail recipes with pastis – to get you started with this savoury classic drink!
What is Pastis?
To say pastis is very appreciated in Southern France would be somewhat of an understatement: the act of drinking pastis is very much interwoven with the culture and the lifestyle of the region. The main ingredients at the basis of every pastis recipe are anise and liquorice roots. Today, there are numerous different pastis recipes, more or less complex.
The production of pastis
The main ingredients for the production of pastis are anise, star anise, fennel as well as every other plant with similar aromas, and liquorice (often dried roots). The most common recipes include additional ingredients such as cinnamon, pepper, sage or cardamom. In order to get a delicious, out-of-the-ordinary recipe, a wide variety of plants, herbs and roots can be added.
Pastis is the result of the maceration of several plants in alcohol. Water is then added to the result, which lowers the alcohol by volume of the aperitif between 45% and 50%. Its colour is traditionally obtained through the addition of liquorice and other natural ingredients, or natural colour such as caramel. Licorice also imparts a naturally sweet taste, along with added sugar. White pastis undergoes no colouration process, and blue pastis gets its striking hue from artificial colour.
The history of pastis
Pastis, a substitute for absinthe
In 1914, the start of the First World War, every beverage exceeding 16% alcohol by volume is forbidden in France in order to prevent the soldiers from drinking too much. Absinthe is obviously one of the main casualties. It is however the object of an additional decree a year later, which strictly prohibits its production and its sale and can be explained by the popular uprising against the green fairy (for more information, click here). Being the most popular drink in France since the turn of the twentieth century, the absinthe lovers rapidly look for a replacement.
As a consequence of the ban on strong alcoholic beverages, pastis immediately starts to be well-known as it is considered to be a good alternative to absinthe thanks to its rather similar aromas. The absinthe amateurs were indeed looking to find again its taste and pastis, with its anise taste which is also characteristic of absinthe, seemed to be a good compromise.
Laws on alcohol
During the First World War all of the strong alcoholic drinks are prohibited in France. Later in 1922, this ban is lifted and now only affects the bottles exceeding 40%. However, the habit of mixing up water with anise-flavoured drinks, which has become part of the practise of enjoying drinks during the golden age of absinthe, went on during the prohibition years and especially in Southern France, where the tradition of aperitifs has always been important.
In Provence and particularly in Marseilles, drinks mixing water, anise and liquorice are very popular, which boosts the then illegal production and trade of aniseed aperitifs. In the late 20s, Paul Ricard, the son of a wine merchant, decides to put on sale an aniseed aperitif. But the ban in France still exists and he is ordered to pay multiple fines. Later on and after years of intense lobbying, he finally obtains the authorisation to run his business and names his recipe “Pastis de Marseille”. Pastis is officially born and it is the beginning of its success story.
In 1936 every worker in France becomes entitled to two weeks’ paid leave (vacation) per year, and Ricard seizes the opportunity to introduce his recipe to the many people flocking to Provence for holidays. Enthusiasm for pastis grows in the whole country and the aperitif is no longer exclusive to only the sunny regions.
During the Second World Warm, under the Vichy regime, alcohol exceeding 16% is prohibited once again and the ban is only lifted in 1951. It is also the year of the creation of the emblematic Pastis 51 by Pernod. From that moment on, pastis becomes of the favourite drinks in France, reminding people of summer, warmth and sun. Pastis is commercialized by many symbolic brands and enters the era of mass consumption.
Since the end of the 80s, new types of pastis appear on the market. The recipes, often more complex with previously unseen aromatic combinations open up a new chapter in the history of pastis. They reinvigorate pastis and the latter starts conquering the whole world, thanks to both its traditional and pioneering representatives. Today pastis is a widespread aperitif and is well-known by most drinks aficionados.
How to drink pastis
One should pour water into the glass filled with pastis before drinking it. It is a very popular drink to have before eating. Spirit experts recommend to pour a volume of pastis for five volumes of water. Precisely like absinthe, this process causes the ouzo effect, as the anethole (molecule contained in anise) is insoluble in water. The louche (or ouzo effect) often possesses a golden or opal colour.
The most famous image associated with pastis is that of men drinking pastis for refreshment while playing petanque, or boules (a kind of bowling where metal balls are thrown in the air rather than rolled on the ground). To this extent, pastis reflects accurately the Mediterranean lifestyle and that of Provence.
The differences between pastis and absinthe
There are many differences between pastis and absinthe.
Taste represents the greatest contrast: absinthe possesses strong herbal and sometimes fruity flavours, as well as a light bitterness from the wormwood and grand wormwood. Pastis is a drink with sunny flavours.
A pastis recipe can contain more than 65 ingredients, of which a large amount are not used for the production of absinthe, including a great number of plants (rosemary, sweetscented bedstraw, starflower, wild thyme, camomile, melilot…). Pastis is also always produced through maceration (plants are macerated in an alcohol mix) and not through distillation, which is a process that only high-quality absinthes undergo.
Moreover, absinthe is bottled at 53%-80% ABV while pastis is usually bottled under 45% ABV.
Pontarlier, anisettes and other relatives
There are a lot of different anise-flavoured aperitifs. This category gathers anisettes, other anise-flavoured liqueurs and pontarlier. Like pastis, anise-flavoured aperitifs became popular after the prohibition of absinthe in 1914 and are today widespread particularly in the Mediterranean countries and above all in Italy, Spain, Greece and France.
First of all, the relatives of pastis are distinguished from the latter through their production process. The different kinds of anisette and pontarlier are indeed obtained through distillation rather than by maceration.
The anise-flavoured aperitifs (pastis not included) have also a different composition. Indeed, their recipe often relies on a less diverse range of ingredients, which explains in turn why they generally have a lighter colour.
The anise liqueurs are aperitifs mostly produced with anise and sometimes other plants, such as liquorice. Anisettes are one of the subcategories, since they are anise-flavoured liqueurs produced with green anise but without liquorice and are rather sweet. They are generally bottled at 20%-25% ABV.
The most famous representatives of anise liqueurs are Anisette Di Calabria, Sambuca and Ouzo.
There are many ways to enjoy them:
- Mix them with water, which will trigger the ouzo or louche effect.
- Mix them with other drinks or spirits.
Pontarlier belongs to the category of anise-flavoured aperitifs. It is however quite particular and that is why we will talk about it more in the following paragraphs.
The name “pontarlier” refers to an anise-flavoured alcoholic beverage, distilled in the Franche-Comté region, close to Pontarlier. It is bottled at 45% ABV (sometimes 40% for the “Pont-Doux”) and can be sweet (“à l’ancienne”). Also it has little resemblance with most other anise-based aperitif, as it contains a lot less sugar and no lemon balm at all.
Pontarlier is obtained through the distillation of a neutral alcohol base, green anise and other carefully selected plants. Its production process is also very different to that of pastis, as the former macerates in neutral alcohol before it is distilled in hot-water alembics. The distillate is then somewhat mixed with water in order to reduce its alcohol by volume between 40% and 45%. The colour of the liquid is obtained thanks the specific plants used in the recipe – a 100% natural colouration.
Pontarlier is named after one of the absinthe capitals. At the turn of the twentieth century, Pontarlier and its region has 25 distilleries employing about 3000 of the 8000 Pontarlier inhabitants. After the alcohol bans of 1914, many absinthe distilleries convert to produce sugarless anise liqueurs which production processes are similar to that of the green fairy. In 1912, Armand Guy (of the Distillerie Pierre Guy in Pontarlier) imagines the “Pontarlier-Anis” on the model of the familial recipe of the Pontarlier Absinthe. The growing success of the “Pontarlier-Anis” prompts other distilleries to start producing pontarlier. The pontarlier is truly born.
Pontarlier is to be enjoyed with chilled water (1 volume of 3 or 4 volumes of water). It is also used in the local cuisine to perfume ice creams, sorbets, and even small dried sausages. It is common to use it in fish or salad dressings.
1 part pastis, 1 dash of creme-de-menthe, 4 parts chilled water
Pour the sirup in a glass, add the pastis then the chilled water. You can also add ice cubes.
Pour all of the ingredients in a mixing glass, stir and pour in a cocktail glass. Enjoy!
1 part pastis, 1 dash of grenadine liqueur, 4 parts chilled water
Pour the pastis in a glass and add the grenadine liqueur. Pour the water, and add ice cubes (only if you prefer chilled drinks).
1 part pastis, 1 dash of orgeat syrup, 4 parts chilled water, some mint leaves
Pour the syrup in a glass, add the pastis and the parts of chilled water. Add some ice cubes and decorate your cocktail with mint leaves.
2 parts dry vermouth, 1 part Cognac, 2 dashes orange bitters, 1 dash of pastis
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and add all of the ingredients. Stir and pour the drink in a cocktail glass.