True spirits of France
The roots of mega- conglomerate Pernod Ricard come from two very French spirits.
IT was a question that had bugged me ever since I came to know about the global drinks conglomerate called Pernod Ricard: what exactly is Pernod and Ricard?
Well, apparently both Pernod AND Ricard are well- known spirits in their own right. Although they are relatively unknown in these parts, they are amongst the most popular drinks in their native France, and used to be bitter rivals, according to Pernod Ricard Malaysia marketing director Emmanuel Dokhelar.
To know the story of how Pernod and Ricard became the global conglomerate called Pernod Ricard, one has to go back to the 1790s, when Henri Louis Pernod first got his hands on ( the founder of absinthe) Dr Pierre Ordinaire’s recipe, and opened the first absinthe distillery in Couvet, Switzerland, together with his partner Daniel Henry Dubied.
Back then, Pernod was better known as an absinthe producer, and when the company moved its operations to Pontarlier, France, in 1805, the town became the global centre of absinthe production. Pernod became so popular that Pablo Picasso even did a painting of it, titled Bottle of Pernod ( Table in a Cafe).
Unfortunately, the heyday of absinthe died in 1915, when the consumption and production of the drink, which could go up to 68- 69% alcohol base volume ( ABV), was banned throughout Europe for supposedly causing social ills and alcoholism.
“In 1922, it became legal once again to sell anise- based spirits, as long as it wasn’t absinthe, and was only 40% ABV,” said Dokhelar. “Pernod immediately jumped from distilling absinthe to distilling anise. Thus, Pernod is a distillation of anise plus some aromatic herbs from the South West of France.”
Then, in 1932, along came a Frenchman called Paul Ricard, who created a new type of spirit called pastis. Made using star anise ( instead of the usual green anise used in absinthe) and liquorice, the spirit’s distinct flavours set it apart from absinthe, and soon, its popularity came to rival that of absinthe and Pernod’s anise liqueur.
“Pastis takes anise, aromatic herbs, and also some liquorice, but instead of distilled, it is macerated in a base spirit,” Dokhelar added. “The flavours between Pernod and Ricard were not as different, but the addition of liquorice was distinct enough to make Ricard a success.”
According to Dokhelar, Pernod and Ricard were bitter rivals for a long time. “Their rivalry was as big as Coca- Cola and Pepsi. The two companies hated each other. Then in 1975, they realised that if they wanted to go further outside of France, they had no choice but to join forces,” he said. “They could either keep fighting each other for the small anise market, or they could merge and go for a bigger global market.”
Although it seemed like an uneasy alliance at first (“Even today, people in Ricard would never drink Pernod, and vice versa,” says Dokhelar), Pernod Ricard went on to become one of the biggest beverage conglomerates in the world, with major brands like Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet single malt, Martell Cognac, Absolut Vodka, Jameson Irish whiskey, Havana Club rum, and Jacob’s Creek wines under their umbrella.
But enough about the companies. What do Pernod and Ricard actually taste like in the first place? During our interview at arguably the only “Ricard outlet” in KL, Rendez- Vous French restaurant in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, we tasted both spirits side by side, first neat, and then in their most common serves.
First, the colours – Pernod is a striking green colour liquid, perhaps a nod to Pernod’s absinthe roots ( absinthe used to be called “the green fairy”), while Ricard is yellow, which Dokhelar says comes from the liquorice.
The sharp, distinct aroma of anise is immediately recognisable on the nose for both spirits, though the Ricard has a slightly more complex nose, thanks to the unique scent of liquorice.
At 40% and 45% ABV respectively, both Pernod and Ricard are not meant to be drunk neat, as the combination of anise and the high alcohol content would be too overpowering to enjoy properly.
The most traditional serves for both drinks is by mixing one part of the spirit with five parts of water into a glass filled with ice.
“The water helps to dilute the alcohol in the spirit, and makes it easier and more refreshing to drink,” said Dokhelar. “If you want a stronger drink, you just add less water.”
Because of the anise content in the drinks, the addition of water immediately turns the spirit cloudy, but fear not, the drink itself is a wonderfully refreshing tipple. With Pernod, you get a more straight up anise- flavoured long drink; while with Ricard, there is an added layer of complexity thanks to the liquorice, which seems to become more pronounced with the addition of water.
“Another classic drink using Ricard is the Perroquet ( French for “parrot”) cocktail, which is Ricard with mint. It’s green in colour, and good for those who don’t like strong anise or liquorice flavours,” he said. “Some bartenders have said it’s easier to make cocktails with Pernod, because there is no liquorice in it.”
So there you have it. Pernod Ricard may be a global name right now, but at the heart of the mega- conglomerate, is a story of two spirits that are as French as can be.
Michael Cheang still hasn’t got the hang of anise- based spirits, but it’s slowly growing on him. Drop him a note at the tipsy- turvy Facebook page ( www. facebook. com/ mytipsyturvy).
Pernod and ricard are both French anise- flavoured spirits that have their roots in absinthe. ( right) the traditional way to serve ricard is with one part spirit, five parts water, and served with ice.