Pastis is to the south of France as sherry is to Spain, the spritz to Italy—a drink, yes, but also ritual in drink form, interwoven into the fabric of the culture.
Pastis is both the name of an anise-laced liqueur and the drink made by lengthening a measure of said liqueur with a cold pour of water. Like its extended Mediterranean family of anise spirits—Greece’s ouzo, Turkey’s raki, Italy’s sambuca, and arak, produced in many Middle Eastern countries—France’s pastis is anise- and licorice-dominant, infused with a myriad of other herbs and spices depending on the brand. The ritual of drinking pastis is rooted in everyday life in the south of France: The refreshing weight of a cool glass in hand is most at home in Provence, alongside a soundtrack of cicadas, pétanque and the sea in the distance, another summer day slowly unspooling.
As obvious as its appeal is, this rite has not come close to securing the stateside foothold that other European traditions have, despite having all of the ease and idiosyncrasy possessed by, say, the aperitivo cocktail. But it’s ready for a second look, either as the ritual unadorned or easily upgraded—whether by swapping water for fresh watermelon juice or yogurt (more on both in a second).
Long made and drunk at home in Provence—pastis comes from the Provençal pastisson, or “mixture”—the drink owes its rise in popularity in large part to the (temporary) downfall of other alcoholic beverages in France. In the mid-19th century, when the phylloxera pest devastated European grapevines, the French turned to embrace anise-based absinthe. In 1915, absinthe production was banned in part for its hallmark ingredient wormwood’s supposed mild-altering effects. France again shifted its spirited attention, this time to pastis, which is lower in alcohol, sans wormwood and bearing many of the same botanicals as absinthe.
The transition from locally made drink to commercial production began in 1932 with Paul Ricard, who fashioned his version of the spirit in Marseille, marketing it as pastis. Pernod, a leading producer of absinthe, also began to make its own version of the anise-based liqueur in 1938, though it wasn’t labeled as pastis and was drier than Ricard’s version, with strong notes of star anise and fennel. Both Pernod and the slightly sweeter, licorice-forward Ricard are now produced by Pernod Ricard, as the brands merged in 1975.
Though the most widely known, Ricard and Pernod are by no means the only producers to look for. Henri Bardouin, produced in Forcalquier, a little over an hour’s drive north of Marseille, is smooth and nuanced, blending over 65 herbs and spices into the bottle. Natasha David, author of Drink Lightly, often reaches for Argalà, a pastis made with alpine herbs and Mediterranean spices produced in the Italian village of Roccavione, on the border of France. Other bottles, such as Pastis Millésimé Château des Creissauds, Pastis de la Plaine and Pastis La Chicane, are best sought while drinking pastis in its ancestral home. (Such bottles may be smuggled back between layers of dirty clothes.)
Then, of course, you must decide how you want to drink it. The traditional method of pouring a pastis is as effortless as your afternoon of drinking it should be: Add an ounce or two of the liqueur to a glass (tall, short, ceramic, whatever you prefer), serve alongside a pitcher of chilled water and, if you’re not a purist, a small bucket of ice. Pour the water into the pastis at the ratio of your choosing (1 ounce pastis and 4 to 5 ounces of water is a good, median standard to start with). As pastis mixes with water, the resulting drink turns a characteristic milky white. The transformation from clear to pearlescent cloudiness is a result of the blending of water with the oils in pastis, a combination that forms microscopic droplets that reflect and diffuse light, clouding the glass. Lastly, and only if you like, ice is added. David suggests continuing to add water and ice throughout the afternoon, diluting and lengthening and chilling the drink for hours. “It feels like an endless drink,” she says.
In France, if you want to change up the flavor without shifting tradition too much, it’s common to add a splash of syrup to the original formula. To the glass, add three parts pastis to one part grenadine for a Tomate, mint syrup for a Perroquet, orgeat for a Mauresque or strawberry syrup for a Rourou.
Or switch out the water for something else entirely. “Pastis is actually a wonderful mixer,” David says. “You feel like it’s going to overpower everything, but it kind of can sort of fade into the background while also obviously being the base of the drink.” To that end, David uses fresh Granny Smith apple juice in her Color Me Dazzled, a drink inspired by the classic Mauresque. Orlando Franklin McCray, meanwhile, deploys watermelon juice, which he clarifies to preserve the drink’s milky white hue. (Though you can use freshly pressed watermelon juice here, keep in mind that the color of the drink will instead be a pinkish-brown—the flavor, however, will remain delicious.)
Color Me Dazzled
Oat milk-based orgeat combines with pastis and Granny Smith apple juice in this riff on the Mauresque.
A simple, sophisticated take on the watermelon cocktail.
Margot Lecarpentier, founder of Combat in Paris, pairs pastis with a combination of fromage blanc and coconut milk. “Dairy with licorice reminds me of the pastries from the south of France,” she said. “The fat catches the sweet anise taste [and] makes it a little less sweet.” To make the drink, Lecarpentier combines equal parts fromage blanc, or even plain full-fat yogurt, with coconut milk, then adds 2 1/2 ounces of that mixture to 1 ounce pastis over crushed ice. The crushed ice is key to the evolution of the drink. “You have nice powerful sips to start, and then it gets more diluted, so the drink changes and fits the weather and makes it less boozy.” For a more sour, acidic flavor, Lecarpentier suggests using fromage blanc, or yogurt, only. Pastis can also be used as an absinthe substitute in cocktails like the Sazerac or Corpse Reviver No. 2. Or, should you prefer your pastis shaken, look no further than Audrey Saunders’ modern classic, the French Pearl.
The path to drinking more pastis can, and should, be refreshingly simple. From the long-established Provençal model of pastis and water to the subtle addition of a flavored syrup—a simple wine syrup to coconut syrup and more—to add a layer of intrigue, there are plenty of ways to get started. Whichever format, take the time to make it more of a ritual than a means to an end. Relax, lay out a snack, sit back, add more water or ice, shift in your seat, then pour another.