By Patrick Janelle
I spent the summer of 2010 in the South of France. After several years living in the gray and cold of Frankfurt, Germany, I was ready for bright Mediterranean skies and the warmth of Côte D’Azur.
It was on this trip that I first discovered the anise liqueur, pastis.
That magical summer, my friends and I stayed in a modest house nestled in the hills above the little resort town of Rade D’Agay. Each morning, I hopped on a Vespa and cruised down to the local boulangerie for fresh baguettes and chocolate croissants. Afternoons were spent driving along the rugged coastline, each twist in the road revealing another tiny, sanded cove—a calanque—where people gathered to bask in the sun. We’d spend all day climbing the rocks that jutted out of the sea and jumping off into the waves. In the evenings, we’d head home for what became a nightly tradition: opening a bottle of pastis, we’d pour the viscous yellow liquid over ice, fill the glass with water, and watch as the swirls gradually gave way to a pale yellow, cloudy beverage. I hated the stuff. Watered down, as it was traditionally served, the lingering cool flavor of aniseed closely resembled black licorice—a taste I loathed.
A full, rustic French spread followed our apéritifs. Multiple courses of tomatoes and onions, tossed simply with salt and olive oil. With the leftover juices, we’d dip crusty French baguette from the morning’s run to the bakery. Grilled fish or steak—with plenty of salt and butter. The end of the meal was slow in coming. The palate cleanser, a large bowl of fresh greens, dressed simply with olive oil and red wine vinegar, was followed by large chunks of salty, pungent cheeses, always served with red wine. Fruits, yogurt, and chocolate came one by one, until you realized that in all of its grandness, the idea of French plaisir de la table is not lost in even the simplest of meals.
But it was the pastis that continued to make an impression. As we returned home each day, it was the pastis that I craved. I needed the thirst-quenching properties of the diluted beverage and the cooling nature of the anise. I learned that I preferred more ice than the was typical. I craved that simple ritual of adding water to liqueur, then sitting glass in hand on the terrace, watching the ships anchored in the port below.
Some mornings, my friends and I would go shopping in the neighboring village of Saint Raphaël. It was on one such trip that we discovered a tiny café near the central marketplace and sat down for an espresso. Some local men, bronzed and weathered from the sun, sat near us drinking pastis. In the morning! That’s when I began to notice the lifestyle of the drink permeated the culture. Locals would sit at cafés in the warm mornings, drinking pastis to begin the day. They would drink pastis at seaside cafés as an apéritif before a dinner of moules-frite or filets de rouget. A glass was always present as the old men from the village played pétanque in the dappled sunlight of the park. The drink represented the breezy way of life in the French Riviera.
A few weeks later, I was traveling through Provence, beginning the leisurely journey back to my home in Germany. We stopped at a traiteur, where the proprietor sold food goods from the region. Along one wall, the shelves were brimming with a variety of pastis. Local makers from across the south of France were creating their own versions, and the proprietor walked us through each bottle, explaining the tasting notes, the balance of herbal bitterness to the strength anise anise and the extent of the sweetness. Only weeks before, I had no appreciation for the strong liqueur. Here I was now, standing before a wall of locally-produced pastis and listening as someone described the beverage as if it were wine, coffee, or fine chocolate. I began to think about drinking liquor and cocktails, something that is done the world over, and how there is a universality to how it makes us feel, and how it brings us together. There are also so many stories in the moments from distilling, bottling, drinking, and living that make each spirit—and the way we drink them—meaningful in ways we might not otherwise completely understand. But I suddenly realized I wanted to understand. And I wanted a place for those stories. Every bottle has a story. And the seed of The Liquor Cabinet, in that moment, was planted.