Don't ask for pastis in Parkdale-LCBO thinks we're not that French
No one in a position to hire me ever believed in my potential to be a truly great bartender, like Charles, “formerly of the Ritz,” who wrote the definitive 20th-century cocktail guide.
Daily, I mourn the loss of my copy, published around the time of the stock market plunge of 1929. I’m not sure if Charles was mixing liquid treats to suit the swinging 20s or to comfort the broke brokers too chicken to jump after the crash. He had morning drinks, pick-me-ups and knock-me-downs, all made with alarming amounts of alcohol tumblers of gin and wine-glasses of bourbon.
The “formerly of” always made me wonder what caused Charles to give up his swank situation. Perhaps the testing of all those sundown toddies and breakfast punches got in the way of his work.
His book contained a recipe for the “Sazarac” featured in a Katharine Hepburn/Angela Lansbury film whose name I’ve blocked due to Spencer Tracy’s starring role. Before I lost the book, I noticed that a Sazarac requires Pernod.
Pernod is the best-known member of the anise-flavored pastis family. It has never really caught on here, and ignorant bartenders will offer a sugary Sambuca in its place. Pernod is a mysterious yellow suspension of plant oils that goes cloudy when mixed with water. Even stranger, if the cloudy drink is left for a day, it separates — but the licorice smell and taste disappear.
Absinthe tastes like Pernod combined with Pine Sol. It’s no longer produced in France because it was so cheap that artists drank too much, went crazy from the wormwood and ruined it for everyone else.
I wrote to Pernod Fils, told them I was doing a show called “Pernod, Ma Vie,” and asked whether wormwood, reputedly an original ingredient, is still used in Pernod. They sent a lovely long reply but did not answer my central question. I took this omission as a yes.
However, an employee of the Jarvis/Front LCBO who seems to be a fellow aficionado informed me that all pastis drinks are tested “in the lab” and would be rejected if any wormwood were present.
Pastis Bellanis de Marseille is featured in the LCBO’s glossy mag, so I asked for it at the Parkdale store. Due to the LCBO’s arbitrary demographic assumptions, it isn’t stocked in Parkdale. I must admit I became audibly peeved when the woman told me to try 401 and Weston Road. So that’s the French Quarter!
Ricard is another pastis now semi-available here. If you ever go to New Orleans, you can try to find Herbsaint, which as far as I know is the only pastis produced in North America. The old Absinthe House shown on the label has become a setting in my dreams. I had bottles from two different batches of Herbsaint, radically different from each other.
I go on about pastis because I value it for its medicinal properties. No, really, I always recommend Pernod as a throat soother for singers and have found that it is the only thing that deadens tooth pain.
Eager to sell in America, the Pernod family suggest on the bottle such abominations as Pernod and cola. Here are my invented drinks — I have never had the simultaneous funding and degree of organization to try them, but I’m sure they’re good. On ice, in a tall glass or some old jar, just not plastic: one part Pernod three or four parts Orangina, as it’s from France, too one part Pernod three parts black currant juice one part water or soda.
Here’s one I have had but haven’t yet named: I might be the only person in the galaxy to have drunk Pernod mixed with mescal.
Mescal is mistakenly linked with mescaline, and hopeful vision-questers imagine the LCBO would ban wormwood but allow psychedelic worms. The way to judge a good mescal is by the plumpness of the gusano. A skinny worm means a bad bottle. A fat one is what you want. The worms are chewy, with a faint rubber taste. I find tequila the cause of an instant headache, but good smoky-tasting mescal produced from the same cactus as tequila never has that effect on me.
I found the jumbo bottle of my favourite, Gusano de Oro, in the Mexico City airport. You have to be getting on a plane to buy it for $10. I had no idea why I was pulled over in Toronto. No more than one bottle is allowed. What? I’m going to open my own store with two? Canada demanded $25 in tax on the second jug. The form says they dispose of all the abandoned imports by “incineration.” Now there’s a euphemism.
The prices at the liquor store rise inexorably in two-bit increments. Sake used to be cheap. And the price of divine plum wine was fine. I have asked repeatedly about the pricing policy and have been told more than once that popularity boosts rather than lowers the price. I used to brave jeers to buy Ontario wine. Now my limited-budget custom is not wanted. Any saving from buying from a winery direct is offset by the cost of buying a car to get there.
Here’s a little deal. It’s Retsina Malamatina (Greek for “bad morning”?) — $4 for a 500ml bottle of drinkable piney white wine. On the label is an intriguing image that’s perhaps meant to encourage moderation. A giant baby is drinking from a big glass while a key unlocks the contents of baby’s stomach.
Gin is the next best thing to quaffing perfume. Quinine tonic is strictly for warding off malaria. Chilled gin requires next to no adulteration, maybe half a drip of Angostura bitters and a drop of lime juice. But a long drink is more sensible. The martini is a topic for specialists.
There is a potential side effect of gin drinking that worries me. Gin could be the secret to everlasting life on earth. The Queen Mother is into her second century on juniper juice. Yikes! The correct response to the toast “Long life” is “You can say that again!”
Vodka holds no appeal, and I’m convinced that men only pretend to like Scotch whisky. A drop of the Irish is OK, but all that single, double malt business gives cigar-smoking Bay Streeters a chance to be even more odiously pretentious. Rye whisky, called Canadian at the liquor store, when mixed with ginger ale forms the national drink.
In recent years, I’ve discovered the sugar cane spirit. One would have to sail the Caribbean, stopping at every little island, to fully appreciate the possibilities of rum. Here in Toronto, I’m on the Barbadian. Master barman Stanley Belgraves’ Caribbean Cocktail Guide, printed in Barbados in the 1960s, has 400 rum recipes that “leave no individual peculiarity of rum taste uncharted.” My favourites are the 30-gallon punches that involve days of steeping before straining through flannel. Makes me want to meet people with whom I could have a party.
Rum cure for a cold: one shot best aged dark rum in a teacup of boiling water inhale fumes for 10 minutes, then drink.
In summer, I take rum and ginger beer. I could continue, but I can’t. Not without research support. Maybe you’d like to make a pledge, and I’ll send you my reports. Or maybe you’d like to have a drink yourself. As George Jones sings, “One drink. Just one more.” Then another. Anything to keep from driving. Drink for clean air!