Whatever Happened to Amer Picon?

If you’re a casual drinker, you’ve probably never even heard of Amer Picon — which is probably a good thing, since it’s not available anymore, and thus you don’t know what you’re missing. But if you’re an experienced imbiber, bartender or Basque, you probably know Amer Picon. And to know it is to miss it, since it’s all but impossible to acquire.

Amer Picon is a bitter-sweet French aperitif. (“Amer” is the French version of the Italian “Amaro,” which translates as “bitter.”) It is sometime drank before a meal to stimulate the appetitite, but more often it’s mixed in cocktails, most notably the Picon Punch (the “National Drink of the Basques”) and the Brooklyn Cocktail.

Amer Picon was invented by a Frenchman named Gaétan Picon in 1837, and produced by the company he started, the House of Picon. The aperitif starts with dried orange peels that are macerated (soaked) in alcohol and then distilled. (This basically creates a flavored vodka.) The distillate is then infused with gentian root and quinquina (to add bitterness), and topped off with sugar (for sweetness) and caramel (for coloring).

The Picon brand was purchased by one of the predecessor companies of the British drinks conglomerate Diageo years ago. It is no longer produced in its original form, although two replacements — Amer Picon Club and Amer Picon Biere — are supposedly available in France. No version of it has been exported to the United States in at least a couple of decades.

To deepen the pain even further, the recipe of Amer Picon was changed sometime in the 1970’s, and its proof was lowered steadily from 52 to 42 to 36, cutting its alcohol content by over half. (The original version made by Gaétan Picon was much stronger, coming in at 78 proof.) So even if you can find a bottle from the last 30 years, it won’t be the good stuff. But if you do find a bottle, please send it to me anyway.

Torani Amer is the substitute for Amer Picon that is used most often. As far as I can tell, it’s only distributed in California, where it’s cheap and easy to find. Or it can be ordered online. Those who know more than I say that the Torani version is a shadow of the real stuff, with far less complexity and orange flavor. It does, however, restore the spirit to its original strength of 78 proof.

Some bartenders, most notably the great Jamie Boudreau of Canon in Seattle, have created recipes of their own to try to duplicate the flavor of the original Amer Picon. Amer Boudreau (Jamie’s version) is relatively easy to make, although it does take some time due to the infusion process. I’ve made some and it really is worth the effort. I think the flavor is clearly superior to that of Torani Amer.

However, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of making your own, Torani does fill in well enough. It would be a shame not to enjoy such a great drink as the Picon Punch for want of the key ingredient.

Picon PunchPicon Punch

2 1/2 oz. Amer Picon (sub Torani Amer or Amer Boudreau)
1 tsp. Grenadine
1-2 oz. Club Soda
1/2 oz. Brandy

Build in a highball or collins glass filled with ice. Add Amer Picon and grenadine, then give a quick stir. Top with club soda, then the brandy float. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Topa! (That’s the traditional Basque toast.)

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