Star Anise and other stars of summer; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review
As a naive Canadian student at the University of Aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Provence years ago, I learned quite a few memorable things about France. The uni-sex washrooms with men lined up at the urinals that I couldn’t avoid in my search for a stall were an eye-opener. The favoured drink – pastis – was another. Everyone drank it and defended their favourite brand like it was a crucial aspect of life itself.
In some ways it was and still is today in Provence. Pastis is an anise flavoured aperitif with the addition of liquorice root, sugar and other local herbs and spices. Anise, grown on the coasts of the Mediterranean has been used since the 15th century before Christ in Greece and then in Rome for its curative power. It’s believed the early Egyptians used it to treat gums, teeth and cardiac diseases. Chinese medicine used it for urinary tract and digestive problems and even to stop hiccups. Anise came to France through Marseille with the Moorish invasions in 730 and again with the Crusades between 1095 and 1291. It came to stay.
Families made drinks by macerating anise in alcohol using various types of anise plants such as star anise, green anise and fennel. This old Mediterranean tradition of anise based liquors can be seen across countries under different names such as sambuca, ouzo, arak, raki and mastika. Absinthe (the green fairy) which obtains its base flavour from green anise, also contains wormwood, and was banned starting in 1915 in the US and much of Europe for its purported addictive psycho properties. (A revival of absinthe began in the 1990s following the removal of longstanding barriers to its production and sale.)
Meanwhile in France in 1920, the law authorized anise based aperitifs provided that they were not green and the alcohol level did not exceed 30 per cent. Refreshing and economical as the recommended way to drink was one volume of liqueur with five of water, they became the stars of the bars. Brands multiplied, each with their carefully guarded secret ingredients. The word “pastis” itself emerged in 1932 when Paul Ricard made a recipe based on green anise, star anise and liquorice.
The addition of liquorice with anise in a drink was both a novelty and a big success. Ricard Pastis de Marseille at 45 per cent alcohol with a brown amber colour (that becomes cloudy beige with water added) has a distinct liquorice root flavour with earthy masculine tones and a brawny power much like the Marseilles sailors of past. It reminds me of the Marseille waterfront when I lived in Provence which was slightly dangerous with the bars stacked with entraineuses. (Beautiful young ladies trained to get guys buying them outrageously price drinks – a big score that had to be settled before muscular enforcers allowed the hapless men to leave). Earn eight bonus AIR MILES reward miles until July 20th on this product.
Pernod, created in 1805, by Henri-Louis Pernod based on star anise, plants and aromatic herbs was much loved in Parisian cafés then and is a popular favourite pastis around the world today. It’s the oldest French anise based brand and in its earliest days included extracts of absinthe. (Today there’s a special absinthe based version that alas I haven’t seen in Canada.) Over a century later in 1928, it came out with its anise based spirit that built its reputation. Now in over 110 countries, it’s known for its subtle flavour of star anise and other essences. It’s quite straightforward in its delivery of flavour.
At the end of the 1980’s, more complex and different pastis emerged based on aromatic mixtures created by maceration. Henri Bardouin was a pioneer in this regard reviving the category with panache. His pastis is truly complex with about 65 different herbs and spices. Yes there’s star anise and liquorice but also mugwort, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, thyme, lemon verbena, St. John’s wort, oregano, kidney vetch and much more. It’s a multi-layered, multi-flavoured pleasure to sip.
As we are also in the throes of summer, three other spirits are stars of the heat (if the rain will ever stop!). Gin is such a perfect summer tipple especially as the simple pleasure of a gin and tonic. If you are going that route make sure you buy a good tonic. Look for premium brands like Fever Tree, Tomr’s, and Fentiman’s recommends KegWorks, a Buffalo-based company that offers cocktail supplies and specialty sodas. I’d agree and have seen bars in Spain for example that focus their gin drinks on your choice of premium tonic. KegWorks says that the tonic water found in most bars and supermarkets is made with artificial ingredients. These brands are missing tonic’s essential authentic ingredient, quinine, extracted originally from the Peruvian Quinquina tree in the 1600s.
To mix with your premium tonic, I’d suggest a local gin. We have more and more springing up in Canada. I recently visited Dillon’s Distillers in Beamsville. Their Unfiltered Gin 22, made by passing vapour through 22 botanicals is gentle, rounded and smooth. Perfect to make an easy going G&T. If you’re not near a local distiller and love the taste of juniper, No.3 London Dry Gin has that in spades. It’s unmistakably traditional London Dry Gin with juniper at its heart to give a distinctive pine and lavender type of taste. It makes a superior and notable G&T or a superb dry martini.
Rum is another great mixer in summer drinks. Add it to fruit juice of any sort and you have a refreshing punch. Havana Club 3 Year Old Rum, is aromatic molasses, vanilla and banana on the nose and soft, gentle rum flavours on the tongue.
And lastly – who can resist an ice cold vodka or gin martini on the dock of the bay as the sun sets? Double Cross Vodka, an ultra premium spirit produced from winter wheat in the Slovak Republic is soft, silky, with a nice uplift in the finish. Add pickled onions or salty olives, a dash of vermouth and you’ll be forgetting about market turmoil, flash floods and pesky bugs in a flash.
For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits
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