One sure-fire way to start an argument with me is to say that absinthe makes people hallucinate. It doesn't. But if you think it does, you have something in common with French regulators in the early 1900s. Back then, everyone was panicking that absinthe would drive people insane because it contained wormwood. Before more people could succumb to absinthe madness and chop their ear off à la Vincent van Gogh, they outlawed the spirit. (The fact that absinthe was 140 proof and people were drinking it like wine had more than a little to do with the crazy behavior, but I digress.) With absinthe out of the picture, people needed another delicious anise-flavored alcoholic beverage. That's where pastis came in.
Pastis was developed as a substitute when absinthe was banned in France. It has the same woodsy anise flavor along with a little sweetness from added sugar. For nearly a century, pastis was the only way most of us imbibed our anise, whether it was on the petanque courts in France or at tony New York bars.
But even though absinthe is back in full swing, we haven't forgotten about pastis. Its lighter character and lower alcohol content make it more sippable and flexible than absinthe. And for those who stubbornly insist that absinthe will make you see tiny green babies or try to fly off a cliff, pastis can be imbibed without fear.
What's Available to Buy?
When most people think of pastis, Pernod is the brand that comes to mind. (In many circles, pastis is simply called Pernod). It has a bright licorice notes with a hint of sweetness. Most liquor shops will carry it for about $30 a bottle.
Pastis Prado and Granier Mon Patis also have good flavor, though they're a little harder to track down. La Muse Verte Le Pastis d'Autrefois, which will run you about $10 more, is a bit more delicate though I don't find it dramatically better considering the leap in price and possible shipping charges since it's not commonly stocked.
Pastis has been one of my little luxuries, and I was shocked at how close the homemade stuff could come to the store-bought varieties with so little effort—and so little money. It freed me up to use pastis in new ways I was a bit too cautious to try before—such as using it as a glaze for fish and as part of the filling for a fish pot pie. I also felt emboldened to experiment with a splash of pastis in cocktail creations and discovered it goes just as well with fruity concoctions as it does with dry cocktails. The most fun part of this project is discovering that steeping some spices and bark in a jar for just a few days can produce such a rich flavor.
The French manufacturers of pastis take pride in making pure products made with first-rate ingredients and traditional methods. But as much as I enjoy and appreciate that level of craftsmanship, it shows in the price tag. So I like to have a bottle of Pernod as my fancy-time pastis and a homemade batch of everyday pastis.
There is one drawback to the homemade stuff if you want to serve it simply mixed with water rather than adding it to a cocktail. DIY pastis doesn't dramatically "louche," or turn cloudy white when water is added. That reaction comes from anise oils not dissolving in water, so it's possible that subbing in a bit of anise oil could make a homemade pastis that would louche. But anise oil is pretty expensive, so it seemed to defeat part of the benefit of making it at home, considering how the much more affordable dried pods gave such strong and lovely anise flavor.
The true test of DIY pastis was using it in my favorite cocktail, the Sazerac. It coated the glass beautifully and gave it the anise nose and hint of flavor that help make this drink so fantastic.
But there's no end to the cocktails you could make with homemade pastis. The classic Corpse Reviver No. 2 is a supposed hangover cure that also includes gin and Lillet. Remember the Maine mixes rye with cherry liqueur and pastis, and you can make it even more DIY if you also use homemade cherry liqueur.
I had no idea pastis could go Tiki, until I fired up the blender and tried a Test Pilot. It's pretty darn tasty. I'm also going try my pastis in a 151 Swizzle, a Morning Glory, an Obituary Cocktail, and a Cocktail a la Louisiane.