The origin of the drink, however, has a chequered history. Anise flavoured drinks go back many centuries, with variants in Greece (ouzo), Turkey (raki) and the Lebanon – countries which are all based around the Mediterranean.
The precursor to modern day French pastis is the 19th century popular drink of absinthe, imbibed often – perhaps too often – by poets, philosophers and artists of the era, such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Verlaine. Absinthe was not only flavoured with anise, but by another botanical called wormwood (artemisia absinthum), an ingredient that had certain psychotropic effects, leading to the nickname of ‘the green fairy’. Highly alcoholic and reputedly sending some imbibers crazy, the drink was eventually banned in 1915. Bad timing, since at that time a little light relief was sorely needed.
Henri Louis Pernod popularised absinthe from the early 1800s, and the drink was given a huge boost when phylloxera devastated the vineyards and hence production of wine. By 1910, 36 million litres of absinthe were consumed per year in France The very high alcoholic strength leading to a tendency to addiction led to the 1915 ban. However, mindful of a loss of tax revenue, the authorities gave the go-ahead for an absinthe -like drink, with no wormwood and a much lower alcoholic strength. And so the modern pastis was born.
Paul Ricard from Marseille is credited for the birth of modern-day pastis, and by 1932 had achieved a change in the law to allow a higher alcoholic strength which is now 45 per cent vol. In 1974 Pernod and Ricard joined forces and the company is now the second largest drinks company in the world.
Although Pernod and Ricard dominate the pastis market, other companies have since sprung up with their own individual recipes based around anise. Located on the Ile de Barthelasse in the middle of the Rhone River at Avignon, the Manguin distillery was founded in 1950. Surrounded by pear orchards, this independent pastis has the peculiarity of the addition of pear brandy. Other ingredients are liquorice root, cardamom, coriander, vanilla and cinnamon, alongside the essential anise. The result is a very modern style of pastis, which is softer and more aromatic than the traditional Ricard.
All pastis needs to be diluted with ice-cold water, at which point it turns cloudy due to a precipitate. Pastis Manguin recommend a mix of five parts water to one part pastis and unusually, recommend that the pastis is added to the water and not the other way around, in order to release more of the aromatic compounds. Having tasted Pastis Manguin, for me it is one of the best and most interesting I have come across – and I spend a lot of time in France (in normal circumstances!). Greatly aromatic and refreshing, to be sipped on the terrace in the sunshine. Available in the UK from Yapp Brothers at around £35 per bottle.