When’s the last time you learned to like a drink that, at first, made you want to gag? Was it gin? That would make sense, seeing as how if anyone claims to have liked their first sip of gin, they’re either lying to you, or they waited too long to try it.
How’d you start liking gin? Did you drink a lot, like you were practicing for a sport that doesn’t exist? Or did you develop a few positive associations with the flavor of gin by drinking a Gimlet while watching an episode of Jeopardy in which Alex Trebek’s suit-and-tie game was especially on point? Probably some combination of the two. And you did the right thing - gin is delicious.
To be clear, this isn’t about gin. It’s about the importance of trying new things and the not-so-exact science of how you go about acquiring a taste. And, if you grant me permission by continuing to read this email, I’m going to convince you to acquire a taste for two of my all-time favorite things: pastis and absinthe.
Why Do We Like What We Like?
In terms of food and drink, some of this is biological. Our brains are wired to like fat and sugar, and genetics affect our perception of certain things like cilantro. Beyond that, it’s conditioning and familiarity. I grew up around Puget Sound, for example, so if you put a bucket of clams in front of me, I’d probably start eating them without breaking eye contact.
I also really like pastis and absinthe - and, honestly, I have no good explanation for this. I’m not a huge fan of anise, and the first time I tried pastis, I thought it was disgusting. But I also found it interesting - and that’s why I kept drinking it. I saw the potential in pastis and absinthe, the same way a casting director for a 1980s Preparation H commercial saw the potential in a young Bryan Cranston.
Unfortunately, you’ve probably been fed lies about absinthe from movies like Moulin Rouge. That’s a great film. And it’s also anti-absinthe propaganda. I’m here to set the record straight.
Absinthe is a strong, anise-flavored drink that gets its distinctive green color from wormwood and other herbs. It was hugely popular in the early 20th century - but certain people also thought wormwood was a hallucinogenic, and they blamed absinthe for a rise in moral decay (which probably had more to do with the fact that absinthe is often over 60% alcohol). France, the United States, and a bunch of other countries banned it.
That’s when pastis arrived. Pastis is essentially a less-strong version of absinthe with added sugar and the wormwood removed. I slightly prefer absinthe - but when I don’t feel like ingesting something that’s 136-proof (which is to say, most of the time), I go with pastis.
The Traditional Way To Drink Pastis
Which also happens to be the same way I drink it (because I’m a cocktail nerd who’s occasionally beholden to tradition):
Take two ounces of pastis, pour it into a highball without ice, and top that off with five ounces of cool water. That’s it. That’s how you drink pastis. You’ll notice your drink will immediately turn cloudy, and that’s because pastis has an organic compound that isn’t soluble in water. This won’t make you hallucinate, but it will make anyone around you point a finger at your drink and say, “Hey, what’s that?”
So here’s my pitch: pour yourself a glass of pastis this week. It’s a nuanced beverage that requires minimal effort, and it’s perfect for warm days when you want to sip on something cool and pretend you’re in Marseille. You might not love the first glass you make - but go ahead and keep at it. Tastes don’t acquire themselves, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you stop trying to acquire new ones.
Once you get into absinthe or pastis, try some arak from Lebanon, ouzo from Greece, or sambuca from Italy (more spirits flavored with anise). If there were ever a time to try something new, it’s now. So go ahead and put away that sourdough starter and the sweaters you’re knitting for those neighbors you’ve never met. But if you’re not quite ready to dive head-first into the world of absinthe and pastis, I understand. Think of these cocktails as your training wheels or pool floaties.
Corpse Reviver No. 2
Several different Corpse Revivers have been around for over a century, but the best one by far is the Corpse Reviver No. 2. It’s well-balanced, strong without tasting too boozy, and deceptively complex for something that looks like a glass of lemonade trying to convince everyone it’s an elegant cocktail.
When you’re starting out as a bartender, the Sazerac is one of the first things you learn to make. Why? Because it’s a certified classic. Sure, it’s also kind of an obscure drink nowadays and people rarely order them - but it’s not like a lawyer can just turn to a judge and say, “I’m sorry your honor, that law’s too obscure, and I didn’t bother to learn it.” Seeing as how you probably aren’t a professional bartender, here’s another reason to make Sazerac: it’s a delicious drink.
A gin Negroni is called a Negroni, and a bourbon Negroni is called a Boulevardier. So why doesn’t the mezcal Negroni have a name (other than Mezcal Negroni)? It should, seeing as how it’s arguably better than both of those other drinks.