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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.

Of pastis, Mayle wrote, "The taste is clean and sharp and refreshing, exactly what one needs to settle the dust and stimulate the palate after a hectic morning in the market. There is no immediate jolt, as the alcohol is masked by the other ingredients, and it is insidiously easy to drink."

So easy that the two biggest pastis producers, Pernod (once a major absinthe maker) and Ricard, are today one of the largest spirits companies in the world (they merged in 1975). They sell millions of cases of the stuff every year under the brand names Ricard, Pernod and Pastis 51. Pernod is the most widely exported.

Pastis' high alcohol level -- typically 45 percent by volume -- is what can be insidious. Without the right amount of water (a 5-1 water-to-pastis ratio is recommended), pastis can pack a serious punch. Sometimes ice is added to further dilute; sometimes it isn't.

Though Pernod has been around longer, as one of the first and biggest commercial absinthe producers during the 1800s, it was a young man named Paul Ricard who concocted the formula for what we now enjoy as pastis. He achieved pastis perfection at a distillery in Marseilles in 1932.

The exact recipe for his version is as closely guarded a secret as American Coke, and hasn't changed since Ricard's time. All that is known is that it is some combination of star anise from China, licorice root from Syria (the part that turns yellow when water is added) and herbs from Provence.

With the formula in place, Ricard's true gift became marketing. He keenly understood how to sell the lifestyle of pastis and found bold new ways to experiment with advertising. His was among the first companies to sponsor major sporting events, starting with the Tour de France in 1948. Trans-Atlantic sailboats and Formula One cars also later displayed the colorful Ricard brand.

The mass appeal of Ricard pastis allowed Ricard to indulge his every impulse. He once noted in an autobiography that he "never skimped on my dreams."

Over time Ricard bought two islands, set up an institute of oceanography, planted an experimental rice farm, built a world-class Grand Prix racetrack and concert stage, and established a cultural foundation and prestigious arts center in Paris. Greatly honored as the master of pastis, Ricard maintains his fame with his name plastered throughout France.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Virginie Boone at 521-5440 or vboone@pressdemocrat.com.</i>