I’ve traveled a fair amount in my life and I’ve made lots of observations about the world. One of the truest: The French know how to live life. They even have a phrase for this talent – joie de vivre. One of the joi-iest of their vivres is the habit of relaxing over an aperitif before dinner. If you find yourself in the south of France, especially in summer, that apéro (as the aperitif is fondly referred) will likely be pastis. From the workaday dockside bars of Marseille to the quaint cafes along the cobbled lanes of ancient villages – in the hands of old men rolling petanque balls in the town square to the tables of hipsters in trendy restaurants – you’ll find tapered glasses of cloud-colored pastis.
Pastis has a strong alcohol-forward personality that can be off-putting to the uninitiated. However, once you become familiar with the magic of pastis, you’ll probably find it irresistible. The flavor is anise. It’s slightly sweet, but not at all cloying. If you’re a fan of black licorice, you’ll probably fall in love with French pastis.
Part of the magical appeal of pastis is the presentation. It’s brought to you in three deconstructed elements: pastis, water, and ice. The bartender will pour about an ounce of the pastis brand of your choice into an 8 1/2 ounce heavy-bottomed, flared glass. A carafe or pitcher of water will be placed next to it, and you may also get a small bowl of ice cubes. I say you may get a bowl of ice cubes, it seems to me that the more “American” you appear the more likely you are to receive ice (Americans are known for their love of icy drinks). Many French people prefer ice-cold water and no actual ice.
Water and Ice
This is where you take over and the magic begins. First, pour the water into the pastis (roughly four parts of water for each part of pastis but you may use more or less if you prefer), then add the ice to the glass if you’re using it (or alternatively add the ice to the pitcher of water before you pour). You’ll immediately notice that the liquid changes from clear amber or transparent green to a milky soft yellow. This is known as the ouzo effect. The science of why the liquid changes appearance so drastically is hard to explain. But basically, the added water alters the percentage of alcohol in the drink. This causes some of the botanicals held in the solution to become insoluble. These particles turn the liqueur cloudy – or, as the French say, louch e.