Summer in France equals the South, where the pace slows, the cicadas make a damn racket, and the pastis flows as heavily as the rosé.
Lest I lose you to the “I don’t like anise drinks” bandwagon, hear me out: I don’t either. Or rather I didn’t until I learned that a positive pastis experience centers just as much around the emphasis on experience as it does pastis. The first time I tried the drink started out strong in a tiny backstreet in Marseille—the birthplace of pastis—during the height of summer. However, being too timid to ask how to mix it properly, my clumsy addition of too little water made for a hyper-intense/boozy drink that managed to combine the experiences of sucking on a licorice hard candy and taking multiple half-price well shots in quick succession.
I later learned that the 2:1 water to pastis ratio I landed on had rendered the drink into a proportion the French uncharitably dub “yogurt.” Never again. So, I took a little time off pastis, avoided black licorice, and then returned to Marseille armed with a proper French friend. Over the course of one long, sunny-terraced, anise-tinged, heart-to-heart-laced afternoon we healed all that pastis-related trauma.
Pastis isn’t made to be drunk in a hurry. Even the process of making the drink showcases its languid tendencies. Pour in a tall glass, one part pastis to five parts chilled water; add ice if you’re not a purist; I’m certainly not. Serve with a bowl of salty chips. The process—a conscious watering down—makes it possible to nurse a pastis throughout the better part of an hour without feeling like you’re drinking melted ice tinged with booze. Plenty of time to play a round of pétanque, dig deep into personal histories with a new lover, open another bag of chips, or simply take note of the way the sun moves slowly across an afternoon.
Yes, the flavor of anise (and licorice and fennel and coriander and plenty of other herbs) is present but when poured in the correct proportions and out of the correct bottles (I’m partial to the French house Henri Bardouin or the—gasp—California Charbay), it lazes across your palate like a lingering French kiss.
If I can’t turn you on to pastis with a little tongue action, I’ll turn you on with chemistry. The main flavors that tend to compile a bottle—star anise, aniseed, licorice, and fennel—contain an aromatic, organic, oily little compound called anethole. It’s soluble (aka, dissolves) in alcohol, but not so much in water.
At 40% to 45% ABV, a bottle of pastis has enough alcohol to dissolve the anethole and render the drink transparent (or slightly yellow depending on the brand). As water is added, the alcohol and water molecules bind together and push the anethole out to form an army of tiny oil droplets that reflect and scatter light, transforming the once clear liquid to a cloudy, elegant haze. This effect is called louche and it is as magical as it sounds (watch it here).
The combined drama of mixing pastis with its insistence that you slow down long enough to savor it is French été in a glass, and with Bastille Day on the horizon, your pastis conversion timing couldn’t be more apt. Even if there is nary a lavender field in sight, throw a bottle on the table along with some glasses, add a ceramic pitcher of cold water and a bucket of ice, and allow summer to trail across your tongue.
Rebekah Peppler's next book, Apéritif: Cocktail Hour the French Way will be released in October 2018.
Have you tried pastis? Tell us about your experiences with the French apéritif classic below!