When distilled spirits became illegal during Prohibition in the United States, Americans made bathtub gin. When the aperitif of choice, absinthe, became illegal in France, the French made pastis. It is now the most popular spirit in France.
Made from distilled herbs and anise, with a strong licorice flavor, pastis is today a national pastime in France, a milk-cloudy symbol of relaxation and a perfectly civilized reason to toast the afternoon.
At Angele Restaurant and Bar in Napa, six different varieties of pastis are offered, including Pernod and Ricard, and the bar also makes three pastis-based cocktails: the Mauresque, a mix of pastis, water and orgeat syrup (made from almonds, sugar and rose water or orange-flower water); the Perroquet, with mint syrup; and the Tomate, with a red splash of grenadine.
"People love to come here and have pastis," said owner Bettina Rouas. "We have the antique water pitchers; we treat it as the French would treat their pastis."
Among the types of pastis found at Angele is one made by local distiller Domaine Charbay of St. Helena, which released its own version last year.
Calling it its "California salute to France," Charbay Pastis is made from natural licorice root, three varieties of anise and 20 herbs and spices.
Father-and-son distillers Miles and Marko Karakasevic took on the challenge of making pastis for their wife and mother, Susan, who has been an aficionado for years.
"She always loved it," said Marko. "She enjoys hanging out and having pastis like the French do."
Pastis is so singularly associated with the Gallic way of life that in recent commentaries about France's saying "non" to the proposed EU constitution, European newspapers described the French as voting for or against "a life of boule (petanque bowling) and pastis."
Pastis is particularly linked to the south of France, specifically Provence. That most romantic of lavender-and-honey regions was made even more idyllic by expat Peter Mayle, who turned Provence and its denizens' penchant for boule and pastis into a formidable publishing franchise.