Pastis, one of the favorite alcoholic drinks of the French people

Pastis is an anise liquor drink during the aperitif that is very appreciated by the French. It has nicknames like a rifflon, a ricou, a pastaga, or yellow. “Pastis” means “mixture” or “porridge” in Provencal. This alcoholic drink is generally made with water, alcohol at 45° as well as a mixture of several plants such as liquorice and Chinese star anise. There are more than 72 plants, rigorously selected, for use in the manufacture of the different versions of pastis.

It is the Marseilles native Paul Ricard, a young 23-year-old salesman, and son of a wine merchant, who was at the origin of this aniseed drink called “Pastis”. I invite you to discover the fascinating history of this aperitif, so much appreciated in France and all over the world.

Why pastis?

Pastis was created in 1932 following Paul Ricard’s desire to create a high-quality aniseed-flavored drink. Faced with the bad reputation of absinthe, whose consumption has been banned in France since 1915, Ricard decided to make an aperitif called pastis. As absinthe contains nearly 72% alcohol, it became dangerous to drink, which is why it was banned. In 1920, in view of the French craze for aniseed-flavored drinks, the State decided to authorize the consumption of this type of drink again. 

It was in 1932 and in the city of Marseille that Paul Ricard created and marketed the famous Ricard pastis. This drink was a direct commercial success in France. In 1938, French legislation now allowed alcoholic beverages content at 45°. Paul Ricard followed suit and also increased the alcohol degree of his drink to 45°. 

Ricard’s biggest competitor: Pernod and Pastis 51

Pernod SA was founded in 1805 by Henri-Louis Pernod, founder born in 1776 in Switzerland. His distillery named Maison Pernod Fils is located in the Doubs county, more precisely in Pontarlier. The company is known in particular for its absinthe-based drink, Absinthe Pernod Fils.

In 1951, the company decided to launch its own pastis drink, Pastis 51. It was in the same year that the French government decided to raise the limit of the permitted alcohol content to 45° (which had previously been allowed up to 16° during the Second World War). Following this launch, Pastis 51 became the main competitor of Ricard.

Pernod-Ricard Group: a major collaboration

Let us recall that Pernod was the main precursor of absinthe. After its marketing was banned, the company continued to develop other products in order to compete with Ricard. This hard-fought battle ended in 1975 with the merger of the two companies. Hence the birth of the Pernod-Ricard group, which resulted from the merger between the two companies Pernod SA and Ricard SA. An amusing fact to know, during the Second World War, Ricard had converted into a fruit juice factory and Pernod into a chocolate factory, not very logical. 

This merger created, according to the press of the time, the “Empire of Pastis”, which allowed pastis to grow considerably. Numerous recipes were created with a wide variety of blends to be able to adapt to all the needs of consumers and all occasions. Today, pastis remains the typical drink of the South of France while being a world-famous drink. 

How is pastis made?

Pastis is obtained by the maceration of different plants. This is done by soaking the selected plants in water, oil, or alcohol for several days or weeks. The conception of the pastis drink is tedious work that requires experience and rigor. Only in this way can a better result be obtained. It should be noted that in order to extract the aromas, the spices must be macerated in alcohol at a high dose ranging from 30 to 96° for 2 weeks to 2 months. In addition, each spice must be treated separately in vats.

After the maceration, we proceed to the draining stage which consists in extracting the juice. The residue will then be treated in an apparatus called alembic. This still separates the different elements necessary for the production of pastis by a process of heating at high temperature followed by cooling. At the end of the treatment, the distillate is recovered. The aromas will be obtained thanks to the alcohol vapors. 

The last stage of the manufacturing process is the most delicate. Indeed, one must mix the distillates while adding pure water and Anethol. The aim is to obtain an alcohol content not exceeding 45°.

The pastis market 

The global pastis market is currently dominated by the Pernod Ricard group. Since its creation at the beginning of the 1930s, it has never ceased to seduce consumers. This explains why it is considered the number one aperitif in France. It should be noted that production increased considerably from 1932 to 1972. It went from 250,000 liters of pastis to 60 million. In 2016, the Pernod Ricard group had a market share of nearly 53%. From now on, the sale of Ricard explodes in France. With more than 24.3 million liters sold, pastis is the number one product on the market, followed by Martini, which has only 11.5 million liters. The rest of the market is occupied by brands such as Berger, Duval, and Casanis. For example, Berger is known for its two white and yellow pastis. 

Pernod Ricard regularly seeks to attract new audiences. Of particular note is the marketing of pastis flavored with red fruit or mint, which are aimed particularly at young people. Even if absinthe is once again authorized in France since 2011, the petit jaune (=little yellow) continues to be sold with dazzling success.

How to drink pastis?

To enjoy pastis, you have several possibilities. The Parisian tasting consists of adding first the pastis drink, then ice cubes and water. With this first method, you will block the development of the aromas of the pastis. The technique most appreciated by the amateurs is the old-fashioned tasting. Before pouring water, you must first serve the pastis. The last step is to add ice cubes to the glass. The latter is equivalent to 5-7 times the volume of the pastis. In other words, if you take 2 cl of pastis, you must have at least 10 cl of freshwater. The 2 cl of pastis is nicknamed in a vulgar and funny way, a ball (une couille). In order to vary the pleasure, you can create several simple cocktails:

  • La Tomate (=The Tomato): Pastis with grenadine
  • Le Perroquet (=The Parrot): Pastis with mint
  • Le Perroquet Sauvage (=The Wild Parrot): Pastis with Get 27
  • La Mauresque: Pastis with orgeat

Another variant is the Ricard couteau (=knife) or inversé (=reversed). You will first serve the water and then serve the Pastis along on a knife so that it comes to the top of the water. It’s a kind of shooter with water in the “background”. 

A very important point, when a person puts too much water with the pastis, it is said that the pastis is drowned (=noyé). Conversely, when there is too much pastis we say that it is a flan or a yogurt. To my knowledge, the term yogurt comes from Lyon. 

Some regulars prefer pure pastis. This means that it is taken without adding water. So you have to put 2 to 4 cl of pastis in your glass and drink it in one go. Even if pastis is generally drunk as an aperitif, you can also use it to embellish your various dishes. It is for example possible to prepare flambéed prawns with pastis that are accompanied by aniseed rice. 

The main ingredients of pastis

This aperitif drink is made with plants with unsuspected virtues such as Chinese star anise, liquorice or liquorice rhizomes. What makes it so special and unavoidable for lovers of alcoholic drinks and aperitifs.

  • Liquorice

Liquorice means “sweet root” in Greek. This herbaceous plant with a height of 1.50 m is distinguished by its veil, or pale blue flowers. It generally grows on moist soil from June to September. Thanks to its underground stems commonly called rhizomes, they are difficult to remove. 

  • Chinese badian

The Chinese star anise is none other than the fruit of the Chinese badianier which is an aromatic shrub with a height of 4 to 18 meters. It is generally found in regions with a tropical climate. Also called star anise, Chinese star anise is distinguished by its eight-branched star-shaped flowers and its brown seed which is very fragrant. It is the essential oil it contains that is mainly used in the manufacture of pastis.

Chinese star anise is used as an infusion to treat digestive problems, flu, diarrhea. It grows mainly in Asian countries such as Japan, Cambodia, or Laos. However, it should not be confused with Japanese star anise, which is deadly. The latter contains in particular toxic substances that attack the nervous system.

Ricard and pétanque: two inseparable friends

Did you know that Ricard invented pastis at the age of 17? Both enterprising and resourceful, he managed to create this incomparable drink using only a still. An outstanding salesman, Paul Ricard used his many talents to convince bars in Marseilles to adopt this drink. Since advertising of alcoholic beverages is prohibited, he came up with an ingenious idea to promote his aperitif. This involves sponsoring sports activities.

In 1961, for example, he organized a petanque tournament with the collaboration of Michel Montana, the head of the newspaper “La Marseillaise”. This was a dazzling success. The “Mondial de la pétanque” even borrowed its name: Mondial Ricard – La Marseillaise à pétanque. The sixtieth edition of this tournament is scheduled for July 2021. It is one of the biggest pétanque tournaments in the world. 

From now on, pastis and pétanque are two inseparable friends. The little yellow one is at the top of the list of the drinks most appreciated by petanque lovers. Both thirst-quenching and affordable, it is perfect for a game of pétanque in the heat of the summer. By the way, you can read my article about the pétanque game: What is the French Game of Pétanque?

Pastis, a very popular drink in France

Pastis is the most popular aniseed drink in France. The Ricard company, which is currently the leader of this product, has revealed that the annual consumption of pastis in France is 130 million liters. In other words, a person consumes an average of 2 liters of pastis per year. Note that Ricard makes an average of 40 – 50 million liters of annual sales. After comes the brand Pastis 51, then comes brands such as Duval, Berger, or Casanis.

According to popular belief, the aniseed-flavored aperitif is intended particularly for people aged 50 and over in the south-east of France. This is far from reflecting reality. Indeed, even if the intention to purchase is more important among people 55 years and older, it must be recognized that potential consumers are getting younger over the years. Since 2017, for example, there has been a 3.6 point increase in consumption for people aged 35 to 54. Against all expectations, the pastis drink has become a trendy drink in the techno world among young people in France. For example, you could find a Ricard caravan at the famous techno festival, Les Nuits Sonores in Lyon (read my article about this festival). 

In addition, we can see that the consumption of Ricard is almost constant throughout the year in the south-eastern and north-eastern parts of France. This is not the case in the southwest where there is a very important seasonality. A notable drop is particularly noted in winter. On the other hand, consumption is in full swing in autumn. In Paris, even if Ricard consumption increases in the summer, overall consumption is still quite modest.

The pastis forézien a new competitor on the market

The pastis forézien is still a very recent aperitif, as it was only released on the market in October 2020. However, sales exploded unimaginably in just a few months thanks to the curfew. It is the “Source Distillerie” located in Chalmazel which is at the origin of this project whose success is undeniable. 

Although the Loire county is quite far from the capital of the pastis, the founders did not hesitate to start. With one year of preparation and given that this product does not yet exist in the region. This pastis forézien is made using local wild plants from the Forez region. This explains its unique flavors. Of course, the formula of this original recipe is kept secret. 

Even if the two founders are not sure to compete with Ricard and Pastis 51, they are optimistic about the success of this new pastis. Félix Groizard and Florent Augay, the two partners, are initially targeting major tourist areas such as Annecy and Lyon. Later, they plan to penetrate the market in the south of France such as Marseille.

To conclude

Pastis is a typical drink from the south of France, mainly drunk during the summer throughout France. It is a drink particularly favored and appreciated by the French as an aperitif. As seen previously, you can vary the pleasures by mixing pastis with a little mint or grenadine to have different cocktails simple to make.

Citations:

https://www.lemonde.fr/mmpub/edt/zip/2017/07/26/133631298-d478940fa1d666cfa0250a27da462cfce430083a/index.html#:~:text=Le%20groupe%20Pernod%20Ricard%20domine,%2C5%20millions%20de%20litres

https://www.larvf.com/,vins-pastis-degustation-accords-servir-aromatise-selection-terrasse-ete-aperitif,4430974.asp