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Pastis was first created as an alternative to absinthe once the ban on absinthe production was enacted in France in 1915.
Pastis has the same anise heavy formula, however it is made without wormwood (the banned substance) and is much lower in alcoholic volume, being made to 40-45% alcohol by volume.
The two main brands of pastis (although there are many) are Pernod, the original commercial producer of absinthe - and Ricard.
The two brands are very different in style. Pernod is made by distillation rather than maceration, and contains no liquorice. This makes its flavour lighter. Ricard is a more traditional pastis, and is in fact the most popular pastis in the world.
The word "pastis" is the French term for "mixture". It is most usually consumed diluted with water (the generally agreed correct ratio is 5:1 water to pastis) and is immensely popular in France during the summer months.
Once water is added to the pastis, the drink "louches" which means to turn a milky white colour, brought about by the oils from the anise, which are soluble in alcohol but not in water, becoming suspended in the liquid. Grenadine can be added to the drink to make what is known at a "Tomate".