It has a long and sometimes difficult past.
You know, Stéphane, it’s magic. Just reading the word “pastis” and I not only get thirsty but also very nostalgic of my native South of France, where it is the object of a quasi-mystic cult. Especially between May and October when it is associated automatically with ‘’pétanque’’ the games of boules that everybody plays outside in small towns and villages, and also with bullfights. It is the king of drinks during the ‘’ferias’’ (bullfights festivals) in cities like Nîmes, Arles, Dax, Béziers, Vic-Fezensac, Mont-de–Marsan, and many others. In these towns, during these ‘’ feria de toros’’, ''afficionados''' (bullfight fans, and I am one of them) get very easily overboard by drinking pastis not only at the time of the ''apéritif'' (cocktail hour, from around 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM and from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM), but all day long until the wee hours of the morning. In my native town of Nimes, the French capital of bullfighting where these events take place in a beautiful Roman amphithéâtre called Les Arènes in the middle of the city, the ferias last several days, especially in May (Pentecost Feria) and in September (Harvest time Feria). In the early sixties and seventies, along with some of my school buddies and later with a few close friends, it happened at times that we drank up to 20 pastis a day between 11:00 AM and 2:00 AM during the ferias. But we went only to a specific bar, across the street from my high school and half a block from the bullfight arena that was essentially serving CASANIS, and where the ‘’Chicuelo II pena’’ (band), supporting a young local matador (NIMENO I) was rehearsing… and drinking pastis. I have to admit that the quality of the music started to decrease substantially after the 10th pastis. In fact in those days in Nîmes, some people chose their bar according to the brand of pastis that they served, and there was sometimes (but rarely) a real animosity based on contempt between the patrons of bars serving RICARD or PASTIS 51, and the CASANIS followers
I was talking about a cult. However, that particular religion’s followers belong to separate churches: The RICARD congregation, the PASTIS 51 parish, the CASANIS denomination, the old BERGER BLANC sect, the JANOT true believers, the new apostles of BARDOIN or BOYER, to mention some of the better known brands.
My personal favorite brands of pastis:
Me? I do not drink much pastis too often anymore for 2 reasons: 1. It contains licorice that is not recommended to people who have to watch their blood pressure. 2. It has become too expensive an aperitif for my modest financial means. But when I drank pastis several times a month in the seventies and early eighties, you could find a bottle of Ricard for 13 dollars in Chicago. And I would buy full-liter bottles on Air France on my way back to Chicago for 40 francs until the early nineties. Nowadays, you have to spend between 28 and 30 dollars at large liquor stores like Binny’s or Sam’s for the same bottle of Ricard. It has become a luxury item and I’m afraid that the Euro-dollar exchange rate is not going to make it cheaper in the coming months. Too bad. Your question gave me a furious envy of pastis, especially since we are going through a hot period here in Chicago in late August. But as far as my brand preferences go, I would say that when I was living in Nîmes in 1959-1960, I was a fanatic believer in CASANIS, a brand created by a gentleman named Casabianca in the late forties. It was based on green anis instead of the star anise (called “badiane” in the South of France) used by most of its competitors. It is a very good pastis, usually a little cheaper than RICARD and PASTIS 51, but that you rarely find North of Valence. As a matter of fact I have never seen that brand of pastis served in bars and brasseries in Paris. But when I went to study at the university of Aix-en-Provence in 1960, I switched to RICARD, a brand that was much more common than CASANIS in the cafés where I went. I tried PASTIS 51, made by the old company PERNOD, but I did not like it as much.
And for the last 15 years , when I occasionally drink a pastis I order the marvelously aromatic and natural-tasting pastis made by HENRI BARDOIN at the Distilleries de Provence in Forcalquier, in the Alpes de Haute Provence. This latecomer, launched in 1990, is made from a blend of 50 different plants and spices, most of them harvested in Provence or near the Mediterranean Sea. In France it is more expensive that the traditional commercial brands. But surprisingly, in Chicago, you can purchase a bottle (slightly smaller than its competitors I have to admit) for around $ 27.99 or $ 29.99. at SAM’s or BINNY’s. Its taste is much more distinctive and its flavors more complex than its competitors. By the way, RICARD and PASTIS 51 do not reveal their ingredients, especially what aromatic components and possibly mixed compounds they add, besides the anis, fennel and licorice. It is one of the factors that led me to switch to HENRI BARDOIN that I find has a very natural favor Another good brand is JEAN BOYER, a very elaborate pastis, without any sugar added, made from 72 various plants and 6 spices in a religious community in Fatima. It is the most expensive pastis that money can buy I France. But I do not think that it is exported to the USA. I used to like pastis JANOT, made in Aubagne, the capital of those so pretty Christmas figurines: The Santons. But I did not see any in bars for many years. Two cheaper brands are DUVAL and PRADO 45 . You can find PRADO in some liquor stores like Binny’s where it sells for 10 dollars less than RICARD. It is O.K. but not as good. I cannot stand PERNOD, that has an almost chemical taste and whose anis taste is almost bitter.
Before Pastis was invented, its predecessor, Absinthe, was the most popular drink from 1865 to 1914
The real birth of the Pastis de Marseille