In the late 1920s, Paul Ricard concocted an aniseed-based drink in a laboratory and went on to market it, brilliantly, as an old Provencal tradition. In doing so, he developed another idea, sports sponsorship, and his name became the most ubiquitous in France. Yellow and blue Ricard advertising signs, cycling caps, ashtrays and water jugs became as much a part of the landscape of post-war France as the Citroen Deux Chevaux or the motorised bicycle. One of Ricard's proudest achievements was to have two Ricard jugs smuggled into the grotto at Lourdes.
Ricard was a classically French figure, famously bad-tempered but also famously generous. In other ways, he was at odds with French tradition: a great entrepreneur and a great salesman, who detested the power of the French state and bureaucracy, which he called the "mediocrate". In a fit of temper with state controls, he resigned from day-to-day activities in his company in 1968. Under his younger son, Patrick, the firm continued to prosper, merging with Pernod in 1975. Pernod-Ricard is now the third largest spirits company in the world.
The young Paul Ricard, born in 1909 in a Provencal hill village later swallowed up by the suburbs of Marseilles, dreamed of being a painter. His father insisted that he must join the family wine business, which he did at the age of 17. In his autobiography, La Passion de Creer (1983), he told how he was first introduced to home-made pastis, otherwise known as "the thing" or "tiger's milk", by an old shepherd. All aniseed-based spirits had been banned in 1915, because they were suspected of undermining the French war effort. None-theless, the young Ricard began to experiment in a laboratory with a more refined version, using, among other things, fennel seeds and Provencal herbs (the exact recipe is a secret, which has never been written down).
After test-marketing his product illegally in the bars of Marseilles, Ricard was well-placed when the prohibition on milder forms of aniseed spirits was lifted in 1932. He sold his invention nationwide as the "authentic pastis of Marseilles", quickly overtaking the older-established companies like Pernod.
During the Second World War pastis was again banned by the Vichy regime as "contrary to the values" of the new high-Catholic, high-bourgeois collaborationist France. Ricard retreated to the wilds of the Camargue region, where he experimented successfully with rice farming. He also put his experience as a clandestine distiller to good use, turning plums and cherries into an alcoholic petrol-substitute for the resistance. He would also, it is claimed, tear around the Camargue on horse-back, shouting: "J'emmerde le marechal Petain et son gouvernement" ("I shit on Marshal Petain and his government").
After the war, Ricard, the man and the drink, resumed their extraordinary career. The success owed much to a young man called Charles Pasqua, who was hired as a travelling salesman in 1952 and rose to be marketing director. Pasqua, an irascible, humorous man in Ricard's own image, later became one of the pillars of Gaullism and, on two occasions, the French interior minister.
Long before it was fashionable, Ricard spread the benefits of his success to his employees. A portion of the profits each year was converted into shares and distributed to the workers. When the company was floated on the Bourse in 1962, many of the older employees discovered that they were very rich people.
Ricard became a sponsor of the Tour de France from the early Fifties, before sports-sponsorship was understood, in Europe at least, as an effective advertising vehicle. The company later invested in yachting (a passion of Ricard's) and Formula One motor-racing. He built the track at Le Castellet, sometimes used for the French Grand Prix, which now carries his name.
After resigning from daily involvement in the company nearly 30 years ago, Ricard returned to his first love, painting. He became mayor of the small town of Signes, east of Marseilles, near the Le Castellet track. He took up the fight against the pollution of the Mediterranean - again, long before it was a fashionable cause.
Ricard was sometimes criticised by doctors and road safety campaigners for contributing to the high levels of alcohol consumption in France. He remained unapologetic to the end. He once served a journalist from Le Monde with a large glass of Ricard. "Don't worry," he said. "The only people that I know who are dying off are the water drinkers."Reuse content