Pastis is a popular licorice liquor that originated in the south of France. You will sometimes find it as a key ingredient in French recipes, like in this easy shrimp recipe.
Licorice Liquors around the Mediterranean
Pastis has many licorice liquor cousins around the Mediterranean:
Ouzo from Greece
Raki from Turkey
Sambuca from Italy
Arak from Lebanon
Mastika from Bulgaria
Apparently, the French weren't the only ones to think of adding the sweet taste of licorice to alcohol and sipping it slowly on a hot summer afternoon.
Before they drank Pastis, the French drank another licorice liquor, absinthe, which contained the herb wormwood along with anise flavoring. Absinthe enjoyed considerable popularity for a while, most notoriously amongst painters, writers and other "bohemians".
Absinthe fell in disfavor and it was claimed that wormwood was toxic for the brain, so absinthe was removed from the French market in 1915. Of course, what was the end of a business for some people, was an opportunity for others, and licorice liquor without the wormwood soon found its way to the market.
One company in particular, Ricard, had considerable success marketing what they called pastis. For years, Ricard battled with another company, Pernod, who had originally made absinthe but had refashioned themselves into pastis makers. Ricard and Pernod finally merged in 1974 and have flourished as an international company ever since, expanding their wares considerably beyond just pastis.
Nowadays, along with the still popular pastis of Ricard-Pernod, you can find lots of other brands on the market. If you're looking for pastis in North America, you should be able to find Pernod fairly easily and you may even find a locally made brand of Pastis. Technically, Pernod does not call itself a pastis, but it would be fine if you used it in the recipe below, or applied the pastis sipping tips given here.
However, do be careful not to confuse pastis with anisette, another licorice flavored French alcohol. Anisette is considerably sweeter.
Each brand has its own secret formula, but in most, if not all pastis, you'll find:
Star Anise - Anethol is extracted from star anise and this is what gives pastis its main flavor. Anethol is potently sweet.
Spices - Including cinnamon, cardamom, and pepper
Herbs - Including sage
Oh and don't forget the alcohol. At about 90 proof, this sweet cool drink can sneak up on you pretty quickly, as I'm sure many a visitor to Provence can attest to.
How to enjoy Pastis
In small quantities. My LaRousse Gastronomique says not more than one pastis a day!
Pour a 1/2 inch of pastis in a glass. Add cold water to dilute it to 5-7 parts water to 1 part pastis. The water will turn your pastis from an amber-colored liquid, to a milky greenish-yellow. You can add an ice cube or two, but not more, and only after you've added the water.
Sip slowly on a sunny terrace at the end of the afternoon.
Pastis drinking enjoys a whole sub-culture in the south of France and is particularly associated with the region around Marseille.
Think of long, late summer afternoons and a game of boules.
There are special code words to go along with the drinking of pastis, like calling it la jaune (the yellow). Don't worry if you don't know the code words, just sip your drink slowly and enjoy the warm afternoon.