Pastis: The Star Anise

The good news, however, is that these Francophile pastis enthusiasts are growing in number and are also far more likely to spend more on their liquid hobby. 

“Today we estimate that 2% of the category’s consumers are searching for a premium pastis,” says Robert. “But this proportion is growing, which is good for our brand. Among French expatriates, which are in general in advance on the other French customers, more than 20% of the pastis consumers search for a premium one. So I think in France we’ll reach this level one day.”

The big question facing pastis is whether to rely on its traditional trump cards of heritage and provenance to build an international following while maintaining domestic sales, or innovate to recruit new customers both at home and abroad.

With two leading brands – Ricard and Pastis 51 – Pernod Ricard would like to have it both ways, to be, in Sabbagh’s words, “innovative without killing the tradition and without hurting the heritage”.

He adds: “We want to conserve the heritage and I think we have our consumers that don’t want to be shaken with new ways of doing what has been working for many years. But we want to recruit new consumers too, younger consumers.”

So Ricard adopts a more traditional approach, pushing the regular “five-parts water to one-part pastis” consumption method, alongside classic cocktails including the Mauresque, Tomate and Perroquet. The Ricard Julep – first concocted at the Crillon in Paris in 1955 – is about as edgy as it gets.

As a younger brand, Pastis 51 can be more innovative, spawning Rosé and Glaciale (mint) variants, although these aren’t technically pastis. For Sabbagh, these new products mirror developments in so-called ‘flavoured whiskies’ – increasing category segmentation to recruit new, typically younger, consumers.

In much the same way, Marie Brizard’s Berger focuses on traditional consumption methods, but also promotes new signature cocktails – Latiseva namechecks Berger Mint, Berger Fraise and Le Mouton.

But iconoclasm isn’t an approach favoured by Jean-Baptiste Robert for Henri Bardouin. “Considering that French men turn to pastis when they turn 35 or 40 years old, addressing the younger customers doesn’t seem adequate,” he says. 

“I would more see the potential of development among women. Indeed, women are more and more searching for complex flavours. They also want lower alcohol, which is the case with pastis [when typically combined with water].”

Flavour innovation

Nor is he convinced by flavour innovation. “It will never be like flavoured vodka or, more recently, honey whisky,” says Robert. “The rosé, citrus and mint variants launched recently haven’t met high success either, in spite of the heavy marketing efforts invested. Pastis is not a modern drink, it’s not an old-fashioned one either. It’s like wine, quite disconnected from trends and time.”

Nonetheless, one connection with time is inescapable – pastis was only invented in the 1930s, following the outlawing of absinthe on public health grounds. Now that absinthe is back, does its rebirth threaten the future of the category created to replace it?