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.
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)
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.