I was in Montreal and 19 when I learned to drink. Drinking is a life skill, and I was attending university acquiring what I thought were many life skills. At university you develop talents, but you also meet people. I met someone.
Back then, he carved wooden boats and analyzed poetry. And taught me to drink, which will be his chief contribution to this story.
My favorite of the many things he taught me to drink is Ricard, an anise-based liqueur of a general class called pastis. Like its cousins — ouzo, sambuca, raki, and arak — it is piss yellow in the bottle and smells strongly of black licorice. These two things wouldn't seem to recommend it, but pastis is a drink like a man in a rumpled suit is a man. They don't seem much at first, but there's often a lot of charm under the covers.
Despite the fact that it is little known or ill regarded in the U.S., pastis is nearly the national drink of France. It is especially identified with Marseilles and the southern provinces. A sweetish, somewhat lurid liqueur made of distilled star anise, licorice, and Provencal herbs, it was introduced after the banning of its stronger and more famous licorice-tasting cousin, absinthe, after World War I. Almost every American I've tried to enlighten about pastis has crinkled their nose at just the smell and politely declined. It works out well for me; there's always plenty in the cupboard.
Part of the allure of pastis is its simple formality as a cocktail. It has two ingredients: itself and water. It is always drunk diluted. The exact ratio of alcohol to water and whether any of the latter should be frozen are the only questions left to the drink maker. The original Ricard — first name Paul — was exacting about his pastis: 2 centiliters liqueur served with 10 centiliters water, a single cube of ice added last. I'm somewhat sloppier about it, but I still love the lack of fuss. When I first learned to drink it, I think I approved of anything that seemed sophisticated by way of simplicity. Now, I just like that I don't have to dirty any utensils to make it.
The writer Edward St. Aubyn describes pastis as a cloud trapped in a glass. When water is added to any anise-based liqueur, it becomes overcast, like the bruised yellow threat of a thundercloud. It's a cheap party trick, which is the best kind. An oil from aniseseed called terpene falls out of solution and forms a precipitate when the ratio of water to pastis is great enough, and turns the liquid turbid. But you never say that. You keep quiet and see if anyone notices.
For a year, this man and I had a standing occasion to get drunk and watch movies. If it was winter, we drank expensive whiskey. If it was summer, Ricard — doubles with two rocks and not enough water. We'd put on the show and refill our glasses every 20 minutes. By the time it was over, we were electrically drunk.
We watched the lit end of our cigarettes trail in front of the white lights of the city. We had a perfect view of Mt. Royal's garish cross — a giant's creation, lit by lightbulbs the size of my nodding head. It looked like a rosary, if cities clutch rosaries. He cradled fire, and I saw the skin on his hands coming into focus.