I am not a man usually given to hyperbole, but the question of pastis is one that tears nations and families apart. Its tart, unforgiving liquoricey taste is not so much acquired as God-given. As President Bush would say, you are either with us or against us on this one.

Pastis though, unlike Coca-Cola, cannot claim to be the “real thing”. When in 1913, fearful for the course modern painting was taking, the French government banned absinthe, producers Pernod faced a quandary. What were they going to do with all that leftover wormwood and aniseed? They had the clever idea of creating a replacement drink with smaller doses of each of the above and calling it pastis, which means “pastiche” (geddit?). Pernod is the best known brand in these islands, but the French generally give it a wide berth, ie the English Channel. They prefer to go for the Marseilles pastis such as Casanis, 51 or, most famously, Ricard.

Indeed, France is the only country where the smell and mention of this doughty potion does not induce revulsion in many quarters. Any tasting notes would be likely to go something like “intense liquorice in the nose, strong aniseed palate, finished off by a resilient aniseed-liquorice aftertaste”. It does not deviate much from that. The French, however, do have a few nice variations on the flavour. Add Orgeat (almond) syrup to pastis and water and it becomes a mauresque ; mint syrup turns it into a perroquet and a dash of grenadine gives you a tomate .

It is not all plain sailing with pastis though. It may be the cheapest drink in a bar anywhere in France, but it does have its very own health risk. Not content with destroying your liver and contributing to heart disease like other spirits, pastis, if taken to excess, can corrode the lining of one’s stomach. Sacre bleu. Just add water.

Originally published by The Guardian.

%d bloggers like this: