The liqueur is Provençal joie de vivre, tradition, and terroir distilled.
If apéro is a religion in France, it’s most fervent followers live in Provence. There, “the evening prayer of the French,” as writer Paul Morand called it, is integral to daily life, observed on terrasses bathed in the abundant southern sun. Patrons clink glasses filled with pale-yellow pastis, a liquid as Provençal as rosé and lavender.
Pastis shares a spirit with other anise-based beverages enjoyed around the Mediterranean – ouzo in Greece, sambuca in Italy. Rooted in the region’s botanical heritage, it traces its origins to the medicinal anis sold at apothecaries in the Middle Ages and the anisette savored at eighteenth-century cabarets. This appetite-stimulating aperitif is mixed with chilled water for a refreshing quaff. “It’s a drink for when you’re thirsty,” says Alain Robert, producer of the artisanal brand Henri Bardouin, referring to the days when parched farmers gulped pastis like lemonade after working in the fields.
Sometimes confused with absinthe, pastis is less boozy, uses a different type of anise, and contains added sugar, which makes it a liqueur, not a spirit. Pastis also lacks wormwood, the ingredient to which absinthe’s hallucinatory properties were (incorrectly) attributed. However, it was a ban on the “green fairy” that gave the petit jaune – a nickname for pastis meaning “little yellow” – its start.
In late nineteenth-century France, absinthe gained popularity when vine-damaging phylloxera depleted wine supplies. When a 1914 ban on alcohol over 16 percent yanked absinthe off the shelves, distillers and bar owners illegally concocted anise-based drinks to quench their clientele’s herbaceous thirst. Paul Ricard, founder of the eponymous pastis brand, seized on the trend while visiting bars for his father’s wine-sales company and lobbied to make it legal, officially launching his Pastis de Marseille in 1932.
Named for patisson, the Provençal patois for “mixture,” pastis contains star anise, licorice root, and aromatic plants such as fennel, sage, or rosemary that grow across the region. Every producer has its own signature – and often secret – recipe, resulting in distinct flavor profiles that give each brand its own loyal following. Simply ordering a “pastis” would be like grunting “beer” at the bartender. Real pastis drinkers ask for it by brand name.
The classic way to prepare pastis is with a one-to-five ratio of the liqueur to water. Pour two-thirds of an ounce into a tall glass, then fill it with chilled water. When the water and alcohol molecules unite, they push out the anethole (anise camphor compound), creating an array of tiny, light-reflecting oil droplets – sunshine in a glass. This effect transforms the mélange from clear yellow to a cloudy, pale yellow. Purists prefer ice-cold water to ice cubes, which can crystalize the anethole and compromise flavor. Yet ice does mellow the alcohol level, and adding many cubes creates a piscine, the French word for “pool” that’s also applied to drinks slowly watered down to stretch their life on lazy afternoons.
Conversely, some savor pastis with less water in a petite goblet called a momie. For a sweeter, less licorice-y drink, try a traditional pastis cocktail: a mauresque, made with orgeat; a tomate, reddened by grenadine; or a perroquet, a minty drink whose hue matches a parrot’s verdant plumage. With an ABV of 40 to 45 percent, the same as many hard liquors, pastis shouldn’t be downed too quickly, even though its alcohol level drops to less than that of a glass of wine when diluted with water. As the French actor Fernandel famously claimed, “Pastis is like breasts. One is not enough, and three is too many.”
However – or however many – you sip, you’ll be partaking in a rich Provençal tradition, one that easily translates wherever you are. All you need is a bottle, some olives to snack on, and a place in the sun.