It is as French as the croissant. And yet most people outside of France have never heard of the liqueur known as Pastis de Marseille. If you have visited France though, you will notice that is everywhere.
Originating in the South of France and known as the alcoholic beverage that tastes like licorice, Pastis de Marseille is an institution. It doesn’t matter if you are a snooty Parisian or sneering Marseillais, this is the one thing no French person really argues about. This “national drink of France” has been adopted up and down the country (by those legally old enough to drink booze, of course!) .
It has only been around since the early 20th century, but these days it seems like how to drink Pastis is something every French man or woman is required to know. (I presume they are taught it in school or something. Or not!)
Now I should mention that I am married to a Marseillais. So if there is anything I know, it is the right and wrong way to drink a pastis. So let’s get to it shall we? Allons-y!
The Drink: History & Popularity
Pastis first became massively popular in the 1930s at the same time when absinthe was prohibited in France. (Yes, absinthe used to be legal in France. Van Gogh didn’t just accidentally cut off his ear while in Arles in South of France, you know.)
Pastis, with its strength at a mere 40% alcohol content, was considered safer. And its recipe is simple: just add water. A nice and cheap drink during the tough depression era.
Today you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant or bar in France that didn’t serve it. And you can easily find it in your local French grocery store or alcohol shop. French people apparently drink over 140m liters (link in French) of Pastis every year.
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How to Serve Pastis?
If you are at a restaurant in France, and you can’t find pastis on the menu, you can still ask the waiter or bartender for it. Unless you are at a Michelin star restaurant, it is probably that you missed it under “aperitifs”, while searching the general liquors or cocktails.
Once you’ve ordered, you will get a tall glass with just the alcohol in it. Don’t panic, the waiter will bring it over with a carafe of water, and some ice cubes. It will be up to you to mix it to how strong you want your drink to be, depending on how much of a tippler you are. It is 45% alcohol, so forewarned!
Pour the water into the glass and add the ice cubes. A normal serving of pastis would be about 1 part alcohol for 5 parts water. The liquid will turn into a cloudy yellow color, and voila, it is ready to drink. You can pair it with some olives, nuts or chips, as the perfect pre-dinner apéritif.
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What does it taste like?
I have to state at this point that if you don’t like licorice, you won’t like Pastis. It is made from the anise seed, licorice root, and other herbs, but the overall taste is that of licorice.
It is usually drunk as an aperitif, usually before a nice relaxing meal. It is quite similar to Ouzo from Greece, which makes sense because anise is a seed grown around the Mediterranean basin. Ouzo also is served ice-cold as an aperitif before the meal, but no water is added. (And no plates are smashed with Pastis.)
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Can you drink pastis straight?
In a word, no. Unlike ouzo and other licorice based drinks that can be drunk directly, pastis needs to be mixed with water. Alternatively, you can use pastis as a base in cocktails.
Now, I should mention that while Pastis can be used as an ingredient in cocktails, but it is not very common across France. You will not find these at regular French brasseries or cafés, only perhaps at a higher-end cocktail bar:
|Mauresque||pastis, water, barley syrup, ice|
|Perroquet||pastis, water, mint syrup, ice|
|Rourou||pastis, water, strawberry syrup, ice|
|Tomate||pastis, water, grenadine syrup, ice|
|Pérozoute royale||pastis, crème de menthe, cola, ice|
|Feuille morte||pastis, water, mint syrup, grenadine syrup, ice|
|Képi blanc||pastis, milk|
|Provençal||pastis, olive oil|
|Lama hurlant||pastis, tabasco, limoncello, ice|
|Rocard||pastis, rosé wine|
|Diesel||pastis, white wine|
|Noir de Crimée||pastis, red wine|
Now, I can’t say particularly enjoy any of these (I am a traditionalist!), but these cocktails are all somewhat well-known and appreciated.
Buying Pastis outside France
Despite its popularity in France, it is almost completely unknown outside France. So why the reticence? The company with the largest market share, Pernod Ricard, also owns other international brands such as Absolut Vodka, Ballantine’s Whiskey, Malibu Tequila, Havana Club Rum, and many many more. So they have the firepower to market Pastis in overseas. Is it just not adapted to the anglophone palate?
Personally, I find it refreshingly light, with the benefit that there is also no added sugar. It is a pretty decent thirst quencher on a warm sunny day.
And for those watching their weight, a glass of Pastis is only about 84kcal, about half of what the same size soda can would be. The next diet trend in New York perhaps? You can buy a bottle of Pastis and set of glasses here.
So try it the next time you are in France. And if you love it enough to become a connoisseur, you will just have to stock up at the duty-free and take it back with you!