Before long, the bartender was standing on his counter, his rather large assistant was next to him, another was packing bottles out from the fridges below. The other patrons had to wait, beer money clutched in hand, thirst mounting. The search was on and it was intense. The staff was looking more and more embarrassed. And all I had asked for was a pastis.
A pastis? You may think that’s a rather fancy request, a rather poncy order. I have to say, at a bar in a small beach-side town on the east coast it was a rather poncy request, but I was in one of those moods. It was going to be a pastis or a Campari. Or a martini. I needed something sophisticated, something out of the ordinary. I had just reached a major life realisation. I realised just how much the music I listened to in the early nineties had messed me up. Unfortunately this meant I needed a drink that they were likely not to have or struggle to make.
For those unfamiliar with the term “pastis,” what I was after comes in the brand names of Pernod or Ricard, it’s that aniseed-smelling liquor that goes yellow and cloudy as soon as water is added (which is part of its charm, it looks like an alchemist’s drink). It’s the drink of French cafés, of revolutionaries and poets (the artists like a little absinthe, which blongs to the same family with its aniseed heart).
Many cultures have a knock-out drink with aniseed as its base. The Greeks have ouzo and the Italians sambucca. But pastis is the least afflicted by images of old men in bazouki bars or someone with his moustache aflame. It’s the drink to have when you are in a reflective mood, pondering the complexities of life.
It certainly had the barman pondering. He was sure he had some, but couldn’t quite explain the bottle to me. He kept clicking his fingers and tapping his temple. It belonged to that class of drink that sits at the back of the rack, slowly being moved deeper and deeper in as the new gimmicky drinks made their presence felt. In bars where they pride themselves on cocktails you are likely to find it (they believe in being booze completists), but here the barman only had a vague reflex impression of it.
I was losing hope. For years, the French were too, for pastis was once banned there for ten years as being a dangerous drink, along with all other aniseed drinks. Of course, it is dangerous if you don’t handle with care. Pastis is made with up to 72 herbs and 6 spices, soaked in alcohol and then distilled. It’s serious business and a taste that some people love, others hate. I love it, as one of the most refreshing drinks around, but today my love was in vain. I had to settle for a whisky. The barman felt my pain.
The traditional way is a shot of pastis in a lowball glass, topped up with water, no ice – some think it curdles the drink.
For a more exotic look at pastis, try this challenging cocktail, called a Café de Paris:
White of one egg
1 teaspoon pastis
1 teaspoon sweet cream
Shot dry gin
Whisk together and think Moulin Rouge.
It is pronounced “pahs-tise”.
What it is:
Pastis is the generic name for the brands Pernod, Ricard and Pastis 51. Pernod is stocked at most bars, Ricard is considered the slightly better brand and is less available.
In this country (with the general drinks ignorance) you are best off asking for a Pernod. You will then be asked how you want it – you say please bring me some water on the side and you then fill to taste. If they plonk ice in it without asking, send it back.
The music that messed me up:
Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Lloyd Cole – beautiful songs about emptiness.