I'm not French, I'm not Bohemian, nor am I an old man who enjoys the hot summer sun of Provence on my back as I smoke cigarettes and argue over the finer points of pétanque (though I may well enjoy a few of those traits). But here's something I have in common with many of those characters: I love pastis.
Created in 1932 by Paul Ricard in response to the 1915 ban of the sale of absinthe, it's got a similar anise-flavored base, but is different in several key respects. First off, it's got no grand wormwood, the supposedly hallucinogenic herb that got absinthe banned in the first place. Second, it's flavored with star-anise, the fruit of a dried Chinese evergreen tree (you can buy it at the supermarket), rather than the true green anise used for absinthe. Finally, it's significantly lower in alcohol, being bottled at 40% (as opposed to the 50%+ of a traditional absinthe), and contains added sugar, making it technically fall under the umbrella of liqueurs as opposed to a spirit.
This may sound like just a weaker man/woman's version of absinthe, but even with the recent re-introduction of full-strength absinthe, I prefer to drink pastis. It's a matter of convenience. Being completely unsweetened, absinthe needs to be both watered down and have sugar added to it in a manner that often includes silly amounts of ritual and equipment (special spoons, water drips, and other assorted absinthiana). With pastis, all you need is a glass, some ice, and some water, making it perfect for lounging on a lazy sunday afternoon in the park, backyard, or in your underwear in the living room.
My annual Fourth of July tradition is to park a spot on the Boston Common with a blanket, a sandwich, and a bottle of pastis, and try to polish it off (with some assistance from friends and neighbors) by the time the fireworks kick off.
One of the joys of drinking it is watching it magically transform from a transparent yellowish-green tint into a cloudy, opaque, creamy-looking liquid as you add water to it. This happens through a phenomenon known as the ouzo effect. It occurs because trans-anethole, one of the essential oils of anise, can be dissolved ethanol, but only when it's of a certain concentration—about 30%. Dilute your drink with water, and the microscopic anethole droplets coalesce into larger, light-scattering droplets. Your drink suddenly and dramatically becomes cloudy.
You can ice your drink down if you'd like, though many drinkers prefer to simply use cool water. Either way, the best part of the drink is that it keeps going and going. Drink half your glass, refill with more water, drink again, and repeat. It's probably the funnest, wettest way to demonstrate Zeno's Paradox that I can think of, and a great way to make one strong drink last a very long time, getting more and more refreshing as it goes.
There's a bit of confusion as to whether Pernod, one of the most popular liqueurs in France is technically a pastis or not. I myself am unsure of the subtleties. Regardless, it's easily the most widely available brand and gets the job done. It's one of the few bottles of hard liquor I have on hand all the time, as it's equally useful in cooking applications. Seafood stews go particularly well with a splash of it, as does a pot of mussels, clams, or even tomato-based braised chicken dishes (here's a really easy recipe from Eric Ripert in the New York Times, or check out my own version, if you happen to have a Cook's Illustrated online subscription).
Any other Pernod fans out there? What do you like to do with it?
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