Old poster depicting a PAC à l’eau. Photo: Patricia Fieldsteel

It’s your first visit to Provence. It’s summer and you’re in love with the place. You’d give anything to live here and to live as the Provençaux do, to penetrate their secrets. So you hang out in cafés, order un crème or une noisette in the morning and un pastis in the evening. But what to drink during the afternoon heat? Un PAC à l’eau, of course!

Never heard of it? Don’t worry. Neither have most French people outside the region. But to the Provençaux it’s the obligatory summer beverage, a refreshingly natural citrus drink beloved by both adults and children, a drink that speaks of summer breezes, the beach, long lazy days, brilliant sunlight, camaraderie and leisurely hours in outdoor cafés in the shade of plane trees.

So what is a PAC à l’eau? Served in a tall drinking glass, preferably one made especially for PAC Citron, it’s made with ice-cold water, fizzy or plain, and the extraordinary, totally natural, artisanal syrup (sold in one litre bottles for €3.90) that bears its name.

After several torrid summers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the owners of the eau de vie Distillerie Auguste Blachère, founded in Avignon in 1835, decided to try their hand at a non-alcoholic drink that would be thirst-quenching, light, not too sweet and not too acidic, and that would also capture the freshness of youth and the joy of summer.

A glass of PAC à l’eau. Photo: Patricia Fieldsteel

After two years of experimenting, Louis Guiot hit on the formula for PAC Citron, naming it after the initials of his children, Pierre, Annick, Christian and Colette. In 54 years, the formula has never changed.

Initially, the family-owned company sold only to local bars, restaurants, cafés and hotels. They have since expanded considerably and now sell to supermarkets and grandes surfaces (hypermarkets) such as LeClerc, Auchan and Carrefour. Sales have gone from 40,000 bottles a year to 70,000 – impressive for a company with only 11 employees. They keep no back stock and manufacture the syrup only once an order is placed, in order to guarantee its freshness.

While the drink’s popularity is spreading, it is still essentially a Provençal beverage, found mainly in the small cafés and restaurants of the southeast. A local saying goes: “Les gens qui n’ont jamais goûté PAC citron ne sont pas de vrais Provençaux” (“Those who have never tasted a PAC citron are not true Provençaux”).

Best-Selling Cold Drink

I recently chatted with Philippe Thivant, owner of La Belle Époque, my favourite café here in Nyons. Originally a pâtissier from the Ardèche, Thivant first discovered the drink when he owned a brasserie in nearby Malaucène. At La Belle Époque it is the best-selling non-alcoholic cold drink, surpassing Coke and Pepsi. Philippe gets through 100 bottles of the syrup a year.

Last summer, I joined an octogenarian, native-born Nyonsais couple for a drink. They ordered beers and I ordered un PAC. “What is that?” they asked. Ms. Provence here explained and offered them sips. Now they’re hooked.

From France Today magazine

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