The first Mixology Monday is upon us, and the theme is pastis. I’d never worked with pastis, but it’s an ingredient I wanted to learn about and experiment with, so I looked forward to this challenge.
Or, rather, challenges, because the first question is, what do you buy? I don’t know from pastis at all. I’ve sampled ouzo and real absinthe, but I’d never purchased any of the anise-liqueur family, so I didn’t know what was good or what to look for. I still will need to play around with this liqueur category before I feel comfortable with it.
There’s a saying that the French keep the best pastis for themselves; when you consider that the best-known pastis bottlings in the U.S. are Ricard and Pernod, neither of which are particulary loved by connoisseurs, you might have to admit that the old saying is true.
So, what do you look for? Luckily, we shop at the best liquor store in New York City and I trusted LeNell to help me out. She doesn’t even seem to carry Picard or Renault—excuse me, Ricard or Pernod—or at least, I never found them on her shelves. Among the brands she does stock, however, is Charbay, from California’s Napa Valley. LeNell explained that Charbay produces her favorite pastis; since it contains nothing artificial, the flavors are cleaner. A blog for French expats in California, Silicon Valley frogs, called it “un pastis entièrement naturel et sans colorant.”
So we brought home the Charbay, in part, I must say, because Jen loved the bottle. One fun thing about purchasing wines and spirits is that among the wide range of bottle designs, you’re sure to find a few to collect to display or to use as bottles to bring water to the table when you have guests. So, hell, why not consider aesthetics when you’re making your decision? Engage all your senses, dammit!
So we got it home. I poured a little into a glass and we had a sip. (Actually, Jen just sniffed it.) Strong! The flavors of the botanicals were really overpowering, and the pastis alone was also very sweet. This needed cutting, so it was time for mixing up some drinks. I had done a little research beforehand, and I found a few classic French drinks using pastis; I wanted to try three: la tomate, le perroquet, and la feuille morte. I made up some mint syrup and away we went.
The first concoction was la tomate: 1 part pastis, 1/2 part grenadine syrup, and 5 parts water. I mixed up two of these and brought them over. The water and grenadine cut the stronger flavors of the pastis, and yet the pastis still predominated. The amount of water in the drink made it really refreshing and hydrating with a touch of flavor from the other ingredients. Great for a hot day outside, after work, maybe served with a little ice to chill it.
Next up was le perroquet, sort of. My mint syrup wasn’t really green, and the pastis was colorless. The perroquet is supposed to be green, like a parakeet (hence the name), but the mint and pastis mixture was clear, so we skipped it, and I skipped ahead to la feuille morte—that’s 1 part pastis, 1/2 part grenadine, 1/2 part mint syrup, and 5 parts water. The color should approximate that of a dead leaf—again, hence the name. But again, because my mint syrup was so pale, the drink was just red like the tomate.
The mint added complexity. We both felt that although the tomate was refreshing it was ultimately a little dull. The feuille morte was better, but still not quite what we’re used to drinking. I still think this will be a good drink on a hot day, but otherwise, it didn’t send me.
By this time, we were up for serious drinking. The alcohol in the previous drinks was so diluted by water that we felt no buzz. Cocktails are about flavor as much as alcohol, of course, but don’t kid yourself. Cocktails are also about buzz. We needed buzz.
Difford’s Guide had a cocktail called the Dempsey: gin, Calvados, pastis, and grenadine. The apple and gin seemed like they’d contribute the complexity and balance that the earlier drinks lacked. So I mixed a couple up. Jen liked it quite a bit—the layers of flavor really appealed to her. I still thought it too sweet.
This was fun. I got a little tired of the anisey flavor after a while, but I still like the stuff. It’s just something I’ll have to drink in small quantities and not very frequently. I am, though, looking forward to experimenting further.