What Is Pastis?
Pastis is an aniseed-flavoured alcoholic spirit that’s often associated with sunny afternoons in south-eastern France. It is primarily made from a combination of star anise and liquorice, which results in a distinctively herbaceous flavour.
It’s usually made in the area surrounding Marseille, its historical hometown, where it is typically enjoyed as an apéritif. The word “pastis” means “mash-up” in the Occitan dialect and it is sometimes locally referred to as “pastaga”.
Despite its dark colour and use of liquorice, it’s often considered a relative to other Mediterranean anisette drinks like Greek ouzo and Italian sambuca.
Like ouzo and absinthe, pastis undergoes an “ouzo effect”, which is locally known as “louching”. This is caused by anise oils known as terpenes that become insoluble when the alcoholic strength falls under 30% ABV.
As you’ll learn below, pastis was introduced following the prohibition of absinthe in the 1930s. Despite it being often argued as the reason for its creation, pastis wasn’t commercialised until 17 years after the ban.
Although pastis wasn’t commercialised by Paul Ricard until 1932, several producers created new anise drinks in the years following the First World War. For instance, Jules Félix Pernod introduced Anis Pernod in 1918.
Rather than use wormwood, the infamous absinthe ingredient, anis producers instead combined green anise with other spices like liquorice and fennel. Given the ingredients’ oriental origins, some absinthe producers who switched to new anise drinks also moved to the port town of Marseille.
Nevertheless, the public was initially sceptical. Not only was there a continuing fear of absinthe’s ill effects but anise drinks were often weak compared to other spirits. By 1920, anis producers were allowed to sell their spirits up to 30% ABV, which increased to 40% just two years later.
Although the name may have been used colloquially, “pastis” only appeared in 1932 when Paul Ricard introduced his beverage. His product also differentiated itself as it incorporated star anise with green anise and liquorice.
Pastis Following The Second World War
Vintage Ricard Carafes
All alcoholic beverages over 16% ABV were outlawed by the Vichy Regime so most producers had to convert during Nazi Occupation. Pernod became a chocolate factory while Ricard made vermouth (and fuel for the French Resistance).
After the war, the new government only partially lifted the prohibition and until the end of the 1940s, liquor could only be produced up to 40%.
The 1950s and 1960s were arguably the glory days of pastis. Pernod’s first move was to introduce its new pastis, which was simply named after the year of its release, 1951. Until they merged in 1975, Pernod and Ricard fought a bitter marketing campaign.
However, advertising alcoholic spirits had been outlawed so brands often turned towards merchandising instead, which marketing agents would give to café owners. If you walk into just about any French café or brasserie, you may still notice Ricard and 51-branded ashtrays, carafes, and glassware.
Despite new trends and tastes, pastis has persisted and remains one of the most popular apéritif drinks in France. Although it’s mostly enjoyed in the south during summer by locals and tourists alike, it’s also quite popular in Paris and the rest of the north. Overall, 103,000,000 litres are sold throughout the year.
How Is Pastis Made?
Pastis is made by aromatising neutral grain or beet alcohol spirit. It must at least feature star or green anise and liquorice. However, it may also include other ingredients like fennel.
The alcohol can be aromatised by steeping the raw ingredients in the alcohol and then possibly distilling it again with them like gin. Otherwise, the spices may be added as essential oils or natural extracts.
Occasionally, producers may use several of the above techniques to make pastis rather than just one.
There are a number of European regulations that pastis producers must follow, though. Firstly, pastis must be at least 40% ABV.
It should also contain between 1.5 and 2.0 grams per litre of anéthol (anise camphor) and 0.05 to 0.5 grams per litre of glycyrrhizin from the liquorice. Similarly, it must have less than 100 g/l of sugar.
Finally, the is a specific “Pastis de Marseille” appellation. This label requires the spirit to follow the above rules yet also be at least 45% ABV with an anise camphor concentration of precisely 2 g/l.
What Does Pastis Taste Like?
Although pastis has a distinctive aniseed flavour, it often features other herbs and spices, which can be quite pronounced. For instance, it tends to have a heavier mouthfeel compared to either absinthe or ouzo due to the presence of liquorice and fennel.
Similarly, pastis has a somewhat drying texture due to the aniseed, which is often offset by added sugar. However, it often produces a slightly astringent sensation on the tongue.
Finally, pastis is never consumed neat as you’ll learn below but is instead diluted with water. In fact, when undiluted, the dry texture can be quite unpleasant.
How To Drink Pastis
Like ouzo and absinthe but unlike sambuca, 2 cl of pastis is typically served neat in a large glass, which is accompanied by a carafe of chilled water. Ice is occasionally served separately or it may be included in the carafe.
The pastis is then diluted with the water to taste. Usually, the ratio is around 5 volumes of water to 1 volume of pastis, but the proportion of water and pastis is according to the drinker’s taste. In all cases, the pastis will louche and turn milky to some degree.
Pastis glassware tends to vary in shape and size. Traditionally, it resembles and curved absinthe glass with a short stem, but more modern glasses are usually tall and thin. In both cases, you may notice a small measurement line at the base for the pastis.
As mentioned above, pastis is traditionally served as an apéritif. Indeed, it is the quintessential French beverage to enjoy from a café terrace while watching people go by as the sun goes down!
Finally, pastis is often regarded as the beverage that accompanies a game of pétanque. Although this pairing may be considered a stereotype, there is admittedly some truth in it!
Similar Drinks & Pastis Substitutes
As mentioned several times in this guide, pastis was something of a spiritual successor to absinthe. However, there are significant differences. For instance, absinthe’s primary ingredient is wormwood and it doesn’t contain any sugar.
Similarly, absinthe originated along the French-Swiss border whereas pastis emerged on the Mediterranean coast. In that regard, pastis is arguably closer to other anisette drinks of the region.
However, most of these are clear spirits whereas pastis and absinthe are typically brown and green respectively. Of all the Mediterranean anisette, ouzo, raki, and arak are often dry whereas sambuca will usually contain as much sugar as pastis.
Therefore, there are several possible pastis substitutes. Nevertheless, they each have their own characteristics and unique identities.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Pastis
As it’s quite full of sugar, a 2 cl serving of pastis contains around 65 calories, which is surprisingly low given its sugar content. Otherwise, pastis should contain just 1.3 grams of carbohydrates.
Due to the various ingredients used to flavour the drink, it may also contain trace amounts of gluten. Although anise does have a few health benefits like anti-fungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, you may not gain many from drinking pastis.
Nevertheless, pastis may help against stomach ulcers, manage your blood sugar levels, and reduce symptoms of depression.
Now that you have read our full pastis guide, discover more of our related resources!