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6 April 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 11:51am

Ouzo, raki, absinthe and pastis – many nations have their strange, divisive aniseed drink

Most such tipples are noticeably lacking in fans beyond their native national borders.

By Nina Caplan

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about water: a parlous state of affairs, and one requiring liberal medication with stronger liquids. Perhaps it was the reports of drought from Australia; this was one of the five warmest years on record, no fun for commuters (in Melbourne, tarmac melted on the motorways) and even less for winemakers. Nobody stockpiles umbrellas when opening a winery in Australia but when drought hits, they struggle. Like me, Australian vines aren’t especially keen on water but do find the occasional drop a prerequisite for staying alive.

At a tasting held by Yapp Brothers, wine merchants who specialise in the Rhône – a whole region named for the river on which it depends – a young Frenchman explained earnestly that, when preparing the aperitif pastis, the alcohol must be added to the water, not the other way around.

This seemed odd, and not just because pastis-drinking, anywhere but France, is in itself odd. Ouzo or raki, arak or absinthe: many nations have their aniseed tipple, and most are noticeably lacking in fans beyond national borders. They can have enemies within, too: in the early 20th century, absinthe was declared illegal, in its native France as elsewhere, for supposedly sending people insane. Pastis was created in the 1930s, by Paul Ricard, to fill the gap that absinthe had left, which must have irritated the winemakers whose precarious sales had inspired them to lobby for the ban in the first place. They knew that nobody, not even post-Prohibition Americans, starts with absinthe then progresses to wine. The same is not true of pastis – it’s a safe bet that the gnarly Frenchmen, skin smoked to tan by sunshine and cigarettes, who sip endless pastis in the popular imagination do their national duty when the wine bottle appears at dinner.

After the tasting, my sister arrived, expecting dinner, only to find water delaying proceedings, although not alone. Manguin pastis comes from the Île de la Barthelasse, France’s largest river island, best known for Poire Williams, the eau de vie made from Williams pears. These distillers add a little pear brandy to liquorice root and cardamom, coriander, vanilla and cinnamon to make a new-generation pastis. It’s very pleasant: softer than the traditional Ricard and more aromatic, especially if you pour the chilled water in first. Or so says our French friend. Either way, it will turn cloudy, because essential oils won’t stay dissolved in alcohol once water is added. So, does the pouring order really make a difference?

A carefully controlled experiment was organised. This is not the ideal drink for winter’s chilly end: the murky liquid reminded me of the English skies. Pastis should be drunk outside, in sunlight. But the aniseed freshness was oddly appealing, and we agreed that the water-first version tasted better and was more heavily scented. Perhaps those aromatic oils flee the solution faster when they are the intruders. Or maybe I’m giving a bunch of molecules too much credit. In the end, what’s important is our enjoyment of this strange blend of sweet-shop liquorice, perfume and sharp sophistication: the perfect drink for grown-up siblings.

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Perhaps a small obeisance to the original eau de vie, or water of life, is a useful addition to any alcoholic beverage, whether it’s ice in G&T or the “teardrop” the Scots add to their whisky to coax out the phenolics. We are, after all, over 50 per cent water ourselves. 

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This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire