This Old Man Is Making the Best Illegal Pastis in France
Photo : Laura Cabassu.


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This Old Man Is Making the Best Illegal Pastis in France

In Provence, one former horse smith is making some of the most delicious and illegal pastis in France, and it's not exactly the easiest process to pull off.

In Provence, we have a great tradition of having an aperitif of this little yellow drink known as pastis. There is a lot of room for debate around the subject: should it be served in a wine glass or Champagne flute? One cube of ice, or two?

But at Pascal's house—an old man that lives in the hinterland of Provence—his pastis is homemade and he can't conceive to drink it any other way. After a very vague discussion about the benefits of this aniseed-infused drink, I recently managed to land an invite to have a drink at his house where's he making craft pastis in a totally illegal way.


When I arrive, there's a glass of petit jaune already waiting for me on the corner of the table; a sort of welcome gift that I try my best to politely decline. My attempts are many, but they are all in vain since Pascal—who is not the kind of man that takes no for an answer—continues to fill my glass during the course of our meeting.

It's 88 degrees in the breezeless shade of 3 PM, and I find myself with my first pastis in hand: the first of a long series of these. After three sips, my head starts to spin while the ice melts inside the golden drink.

Pastis 3

A glass of pastis, Pascal's memories, and two flasks of anthenol. All photos by the author.

It's during the quiet, inbetween moments that are lulled by the sound of cicadas and the comfort of sitting under the shade of the pine trees of his Provencal property that Pascal starts to tell me about his arrival to this part of the country—where his family is originally from—around 50 years ago. "When I was around 17 years old in 1962, I left Algeria and a great part of my family to meet some cousins in Southern France that I had never met before. I had to survive on my own."

Freshly arrived on the French shores, few things bonded him to his motherland other than maybe an Algerian accent that he shares with many others that left the country after the war. Today, his accent has the air of Provence, but there is a memory that always takes him back to his childhood in Algeria: the gestures of his grandparents infusing herbs and mixing them with alcohol to make homemade pastis. "I had always tried to keep this tradition alive because it reminds me of home," a nostalgic Pascal explains to me.


He left for Marseille without notice and had many small jobs that weren't too remunerative: "I was making an average of 400 francs a week. It was so little but I've always found a way to get by."

Pastis 2

His passion was horse-racing, so he was often seen at the local hippodromes betting on horses trying to make ends meet. It was there that he met a jockey that offered him a position as a horse smith: "I've always loved horses, so I didn't hesitate for a second. Plus, it paid 1500 francs per week and they fed me lunch. It was the start of the good life for me!"

Always a hard worker—even when it was a tough job—Pascal created his own business working with some of the best horses in the world, making a name for himself. It was then when the times of lavish parties in Paris, with an endless flow of alcohol and encounters with numerous women began: "We went everywhere in France with the jockeys. With our family from the horse races, we celebrated every single one of our victories!" And seeing how proud he looks, I understand that there were many. If Champagne was the official drink of the wealthy and chic parties, they drank the anise that Pascal had on the side among teammates. Running out of pastis or purchasing it from the store was an unthinkable act for him, so he kept the stuff inside of old lemonade bottles and had several liters in his car's trunk "just in case."

"I bought and still buy the anethol in Spain's bodegas. But even there, it is a bit hard to get," explains Pascal. "The owners sell them to you when there is no longer light outside and there are fewer patrons. They take it from under the bar, and it's usually very well-hidden in the bottom of a box. Not everyone gets one, either: you need contacts and a recommendation." This aniseed essential oil is the base of the pastis to which Pascal later adds 90-proof alcohol, wormwood, fennel, and licorice. He leaves it to macerate for 15 days and then the infusion is ready. "Not all the recipes are the same: some have a stronger anise or licorice flavor than others. But in any case, they are always better than industrial anise." And as if to tell me that I wasn't drunk enough yet to capture the atmosphere of yesteryear lavish parties soaked in pastis, he pours me another one in a small liquor glass. "We usually serve one part alcohol and five parts water, but if you love a good show, then we put a little bit more of liquor in it!"


Pascal makes the trek to Spain to get anethol is because it is illegal in France. "Around 30 or 40 years ago, there were still some vendors in the black market, but that's all over now. That's why I take ten small bottles on each of my trips, but you have to be really careful not to get caught, or you risk to get a greater punishment that if you were carrying cocaine!" he laughs.

But why go through so much trouble to make pastis when you can easily get it in a store? Every time that he does, he risks going to prison and a €3,750 Euros fine. He evokes his family roots, and the unique taste, but is it really worth it?

Drinking pastis can be an expensive hobby, and for someone that drinks a lot of the stuff, these risks feels like an act worth taking. While making his own pastis, Pascal saves a lot of money: "Between my fishermen friends, my meetings with the petanque players in Carry-le Roules, and the guys from the horseraces, the pastis goes really quickly." He continues as if trying to justify this tradition that is anchored in his DNA: "I have always seen the men of my family make pastis. It's a sort of tradition in Provence or maybe a way to save some money when your personal consumption goes beyond comprehension."

As the years have passed, finding 90-proof alcohol that has not been altered has become more and more difficult, too. Since 2011, French pharmacies must pay a tax on consumable alcohol, which is why they don't sell anything other than alcohol unfit for consumption or "modified." "It used to be my friends from the races that supplied me, but now it's difficult to get it even for them. On the brighter side, I guess we can say that this limits our daily consumption a bit."

For Pascal, it's a sin to drink anything else that's not his homemade pastis.