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Cocktail of the Day: Picon Punch

It’s the most popular cocktail in Bakersfield, California. Why, you may ask? I did, and looked it up — it ‘s the “national drink” of the Basque people, and there are lots of Euskadi folk and Basque restaurants in B’field (known otherwise only for Buck Owens’ place and for being the hometown of a lot of people I know who couldn’t wait to move to L.A.)

What is it? It’s Picon Punch, and it seems that Bakersfield is the place to go to get ‘em ’round these parts. It’s based on a bitter orange spirit called Amer Picon, which itself is based on bitter oranges, gentian and cinchona. It was invented by a Frenchman named Gaëtan Picon in 1837, and the drink evolved from a French aperitif and stomachic on its own through the hands of the Italians and apparently into the hands of the Euskadi, who revere it.

The thing about Amer Picon is that it’s almost impossible to get in the States these days, unfortunately. The brand was purchased from the House of Picon by Diageo many years ago, but baffingly they choose not to import it into the U.S., even though there’s a demand (well, a demand from cocktail nerds, at least.) Even worse, about 20 years ago the manufacturers of Picon both changed the recipe and lowered the proof almost by half! It went from 78 proof to 39; one can imagine how that affected the flavor alone, not to mention changing Gaetan Picon’s original recipe.

Fortunately, since the late 1940s the Torani syrup company has come to the rescue. They’re the same folks that make all those Italian syrups in myriad flavors for sodas, coffee, cocktails, etc. Oddly enough, they don’t seem to publicize this stuff, nor sell it or even refer to it on their website. Fortunately, an online spirits house called Beverages and More sells it via their site for $10.99 a bottle, with great service and fast shipping (mine got to me in about three days). There are now many more BevMo outlets around, and for Los Angeles residents Torani Amer has also popped up at The Wine House in West L.A. and Beverage Warehouse in Mar Vista.

Ths version of Amer Picon, called Torani Amer in its new incarnation, has a similar flavor as the original spirit and, most importantly, the same proof as the original Picon. Torani Amer in the past had more of a vegetal flavor that worked decently enough in cocktails calling for Picon, but not so much in a Picon Punch, in my opinion. With absolutely no fanfare (and not even an announcement), Torani in 2008 changed the recipe for their Amer, making it much more like the original Amer Picon. It’s delightfully bitter and bracing; if you like Campari you’ll probably like this too. Sweetened in the punch and lightened by the soda, it’s an absolutely yummy concoction that’ll stimulate your appetite, settle your stomach afterward, and will be an enjoyable and relatively unusual addition to your pantheon of cocktails.

Another option is to use a homemade concoction called “Amer Boudreau”, developed by Seattle bartender Jamie Boudreau. It involves a bit of work, starting with a base of an existing amaro from Italy called Amaro Ramazzotti and adding a mixture of a homemade bitter orange tincture, Stirrings Blood Orange Bitters and spring water to make a damned amazing replica of vintage Picon. If you don’t wish to go through the trouble, Torani Amer in its current incarnation will do just fine.

Finally, if you can get the current version of Amer Picon from Europe, just do it. It still tastes good, although not as good as the old version. It comes in two varieties – Bière, meant to be consumed with beer (1 part Picon to 4 parts beer, which is excellent), and Club, meant to be consumed with white wine or supposedly in cocktails. I’ve never tried the latter, although I’ve got some on the way. If you’re not traveling to Europe or know someone who is, there are mail order sources that’ll ship Picon to you, but fair warning — the shipping costs more than the booze.

The addition of lemon juice comes from my friend Eric Alperin of The Varnish in downtown Los Angeles. It’s not a traditional ingredient but it adds a truly wonderful freshness and tartness to this drink that I can’t make it any other way now.

Picon Punch
The National Drink of the Basques

2 ounces Amer Picon (substitute Amer Boudreau or Torani Amer)
2 barspoons (2 teaspoons) of grenadine
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice (optional)
Soda water
Lemon peel
1/2 to 1 ounce brandy (optional)

To do it Italian-style, coat the inside of a tumbler with grenadine. Add the Amer and ice, top with about 4 ounces soda and stir. Twist the lemon peel over the drink and garnish. If you feel the cockles of your heart need further warming, float a tablespoon or two of brandy on top.

Toast to your and your friends’ health, and learn to say something in Euskara, the language of the Basques. Start with “Topa!”, which is “Cheers!”, or “Kaixo!” (kai-SHO), which is a greeting.

If you want a bit of “Battlestar Galactica” geekery, don’t pronounce it in French (pee-KOHN, with the nasalized “n”) or the Americanized “pee-CON,” but “PIE-con,” as in the name of one of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, and it’ll be an ideal beverage to consume while watching old episodes of BSG or new episodes of “Caprica” … at least until I come up with the Caprican Cobbler or the Sagittaron Sling.

Cocktail of the day: Gordon Cocktail

Saturday night, dinner and cocktails with friends, and experimentation! We tried out one that none of us had tried before, and I’m always willing to be a cocktail guinea pig (within reason). It’s easy to make, with at least one ingredient that everyone with a well-equipped bar should have, plus one more that you should treat yourself to more often. Amontillado sherry, one of Spain’s great gifts to the world, is nutty, delicious and almost worth getting bricked up behind a wall for. Being fortified it’ll keep longer than regular wine, but I suspect that after your first sip it won’t last terribly long.

The specific gin we used for this cocktail was a relatively new one called Hendrick’s from Scotland; it employs a few unique botanicals among the usual mix, including rose petals and cucumber! Absolutely lovely stuff.

I really enjoyed this cocktail, and I’m doubly glad for it because as it’s an excellent variation on the classic Martini it’s brought me just a little closer to true and full Martinihood.

The GORDON COCKTAIL
from The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David A. Embury
Faber and Faber, London, 1953

5 parts or more (2-1/2 ounces) gin
1 part (1/2 ounce) Amontillado sherry

Stir well in a bar glass or Martini pitcher with large cubes of ice
and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist a large piece of lemon
peel over the top.

If you are in a hurry or if you do not have lemon peel available,
a few dashes of orange or lemon bitters (not more than two or three
dashes to each drink) make a reasonably satisfactory substitute. Also,
some people like both the bitters and the twist of lemon.

Embury suggests Gordon’s gin for this drink; try Hendrick’s if you can find/afford it, Plymouth if you can find it; otherwise good ol’ Beefeater, Bombay or Tanqueray No. 10 will do nicely.

Regarding the subject of the lemon twist, Embury continues from the Gordon recipe:

Few people realize the importance of the ‘twist of lemon’ in the preparation of cocktails, particularly the Martini. Some regard it as a fancy, rather frivolous, and wholly meaningless gesture. Nothing could be further from the truth. The lemon must be fully ripe but the skin must be soft and flexible. A hard, dried-out skin will not exude its oil when twisted. When the bit of lemon peel is twisted over the glass, the surface of the cocktail should be sprayed as if with an atomizer with the oil of the lemon. This simple operation transforms a mediocre cocktail into a good one and raises a good cocktail to the level of frankincense and myrrh!

Hmm. Did the Wise Men also bring cocktails among their gifts? I’ll have to concoct a “Magi Cocktail” for Christmas the year…

Cocktails of the day: Coco de Água & Coquinha

It’s beginning to warm up, and thoughts of things tropical begin to enter my head.

I’ve been devouring Charles H. Baker Jr.’s two magnificent two-volume sets, The Gentleman’s Companion and The South American Gentleman’s Companion, shaking my head with wonder as I go along. This guy’s gig, from the 1920s to the 1950s, was to travel around the world several times, eating and drinking, and writing about it for Esquire, Town and Country and others. Where do I get a gig like this?

Each set of books is divided into a volume each on “Exotic Cookery” and “Exotic Drinking”, the latter taking a wee bit more of my attention in this regular feature. Between the two drinking volumes we’ve probably got about 400 recipes to work with, most of which I had never seen before. Oh, the fun we’ll have …

I was particularly struck by this first one, though. It seems a lot of effort for a little bit of drink, but I’m fascinated by it. It’s certainly easy enough, but it does involve a little more patience than most casual imbibers might be able to muster. I’m assuming that the best thing to use for this would be a good Brazilian cachaça.

COQUINHA, or CACHAÇA de COCO
from Furna de Onça Restaurant, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Take husked coconut, bore out 1 of the “eyes” in the “monkey’s face” you’ll find at 1 end. Pour-out water. Refill nut with any white rum like new Cuban or Key West aguardiente, or inexpensive white Puerto Rican or Cuban rum — NOT brown or Jamaica. Cork tightly with a soft-wood peg driven-into the shell firmly. Bury in ground, dig-up after 6 months to a year. Drink the stuff neat, out of small glass. Naturally the longer you leave it buried the more mellowed it gets. Cachaça is the Brazilian word for new white unaged rum. Coquinha has a ruddy amber color and a most unusual and pleasant taste.

Okay, quibble … cachaça technically isn’t rum, since rum is made from molasses and this stuff is distilled directly from sugar cane juice, but I suppose it’s an easy enough explanation for people who don’t want to sit and listen to cocktailians yammer on about ingredients and distillation. I’ll offer one more from Baker today, if you don’t necessarily want to wait 6 months to a year for your drink.

This one looks great … you put de lime in de coconut and drink ‘em both up!

COCO de ÁGUA
from Bélem, Brazil, at the Mouth of the Amazon.

We met an ex-American Red Cross nurse down there who ordered a drink mixed for us at Madame Garé’s French Restaurant — best food in town, we found — which will be possible to all readers who live in southern Florida, or any tropical region where you find coconuts. Actually this is no invention of Brazil, but is found all over thet West Indies and the Caribbean-Central American region. It is simple to do.

In highball glass put 3 or 4 lumps of ice, add 2 ounces of any good light rum (Jamaica won’t do too well), 2 teaspoons bar syrup or sugar, juice 1/2 lime, and stir well to chill. Add enough fresh coconut water almost to fill. Stir once again and cap with chilled club soda for a tang…

Both soda and lime juice are omitted in the usual simple local drink. You could use grenadine instead of sugar or syrup, for sweetening. This sugar dosage is, of course, to taste… We’ve tried this drink and think that fine-cracked ice chills it quicker and is more attractive than usual lumps of ice.

Ah, much better for those of us who want our cocktails NOW, Daddy! If you don’t want to pierce fresh coconuts, you can get canned coconut water (usually with young coconut flesh in it as well) of excellent quality at most Asian supermarkets, if you’ve got one in your area.