How to Acquire a So-Called Acquired Taste

Pastis and tapenade are a perfect pairing. We will not be taking any questions at this time.

I would love for you to believe that I’ve always been the sort of person who enjoys pastis on a hot summer day, under a Mediterranean sky, sipping and nibbling on tapenade in between games of pétanque and drags of Gauloises cigarettes. But the reality is I’ve only come to appreciate the challenging flavors of pastis as I’ve grown older. But now that I am a pastis convert, there is no going back.

Of all the spirits, the anise-dominated ones seem to be the toughest sell to Americans. Ouzo, arak, absinthe, sambuca — not exactly top of the liquor pop chart. Even in an era when super bitter amari have risen to popularity, booze that reminds people of black jellybeans has yet to crack the zeitgeist.

I admit, I was slow to the anise spirits game, too. Fourteen years ago, I dismissed the absinthe revival as a fad, and in Boozehound, I recounted the story of how a mysterious bottle of sambuca sat mostly untouched, for years, in my parent’s liquor cabinet (and, less mysteriously, ended up with a pencil floating inside).

My conversion came during research for a column on ouzo. During a tasting at José Andrés' Greek/Turkish/Lebanese restaurant, Zaytinya, the beverage director told me: “It’s one of the hardest spirits to learn to like. You love it or you hate it. Or, like me, you are learning to appreciate it.” Ouzo, like all anise-flavored spirits, was “an acquired taste.”

Is there a more backhanded compliment, a more passive-aggressive judgment, a more of kiss-of-death phrase, than “Well, I guess that’s an acquired taste”? It’s also rather centering of a certain type of American suburban taste mindset. I mean, if you grew up in another culture, black salty licorice, anchovy, sea urchin, espresso, fish sauce, huitlacoche, kimchi, vegemite, lutefisk, curry and scores of other so-called “acquired tastes” would not be acquired tastes at all. They would be innate. I grew up eating Scrapple, for god’s sake — an “acquired taste” for anyone but a person born in the Philadelphia metro area.

Anyway, my point is this: Try pastis. Open your mind. Grow up. Make peace with your childhood dislike of black jellybeans.

Pastis is amazing. The trick is how you drink it, which is to add a significant amount of cold water (around 4:1 ratio). I’m told ice is not traditional. I’m sure Francophiles will shout me down, but ice is not optional for me. As you add water, the pastis turns cloudy, milky white. In the 19th century, this emulsion of water and oils was called the louche. It is a simple preparation. It does not require housemade bitters or the Japanese hard shake or molecular mixology. I have made a video to demonstrate the louche. (Yes, that is my hairy arm.)

Because the louche was associated with absinthe, the word louche also began to mean something disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way.

The most famous pastis in France are Pernod and Ricard. Pernod is the original, created after absinthe was banned in the early 20th century. Pastis was meant to be a legal alternative to absinthe that has no wormwood and a lower alcohol level. Not that pastis is low in alcohol. Most have over 40% alcohol by volume. My favorite is Henri Bardouin, which has 45% abv. This is why significant dilution with water is key. Pastis is a drink to sip over a long, lazy afternoon.

Made in Provence, Henri Bardouin is just a little more complex and delicate than Pernod, blended with 65 herbs, including angelica, cardamom, cornflower, tonka bean, clove, nutmeg, sage, rosemary, and thyme. But honestly, it’s the taste of anise, star anise and licorice that you’re going to experience most vividly.

What I love most about pastis is that it’s a mixed drink with a classic food pairing, rare in the world of distilled spirits. In the south of France, pastis is traditionally served with tapenade, the Provençal spread made with olives, anchovies, and capers. It makes sense: Olives, anchovies, and capers may represent a trifecta of so-called “acquired tastes.” It may seem odd, but the salty, savory, pungent tapenade mingles wonderfully with the anise jolt of the pastis. Honestly, served on a toast with a little herbed goat cheese, it’s one of the most surprising and perfect pairings I know.

For the tapenade, I use David Lebovitz’s recipe that calls for black olives (I use Beldi or Niçoise) but Kalamata is fine, too. Capers and anchovies are non-negotiable in tapenade — in fact, the name is derived from the Provençal word for capers, tapenas. In his book, My Paris Kitchen, Lebovitz writes, “Pastis is the classic accompaniment, although I never developed a taste for the anise-scented elixir that mysteriously turns cloudy when water is added to dilute its high-test taste and strength. I opt for chilled rosé.” Since I love Lebovitz and his work, I’m giving him a pass on that — mainly because I know he’s made a good faith effort to acquire the taste of pastis.

All I’m asking is that you give pastis and this pairing a try. Who knows, maybe you’ll even take up pétanque, like me. Yes, it’s true. I now actually own a set of authentic metal pétanque balls. Maybe this is also true: I am actually an acquired taste myself.


Black Olive Tapenade

This recipe comes from one of my favorite cookbook authors, David Lebovitz, featured in his book My Paris Kitchen — even if he admits he “never developed a taste for the anise-scented elixir.” (He prefers chilled rosé)

  • 1 1/2 cups black olives, pitted

  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

  • 1 tablespoon capers

  • 2 anchovy filets

  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

  • 1 teaspooon Dijon mustard

  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

  • 1/3 cup olive oil

In a food processor, pulse the olives, garlic, capers, anchovies, thyme, mustard, lemon to break them down. Drizzle in the olive oil and run the processer until the mixture forms a slightly chunky paste. It’s pretty salty, but if you like saltier, add salt to taste. Serve on toasts with a little herbed goat cheese. The tapenade will keep in the fridge for up to a week.