Tasting Amer Picon: 1940’s Version vs. Today’s

amer picon bitters taste testRegular readers of Professor Cocktail know that I’m an admirer of Amer Picon, the bittersweet, orange-flavored French liqueur that I grew up drinking with my Basque friends. It hasn’t been imported into the United States since the 1980s, much to the dismay of many cocktail fans. It is, however, still available sporadically in Europe, so I bit the bullet and paid to acquire a bottle.

Due to the generosity of my friend Eric Witz, a collector and expert in the field of vintage spirits, I have a sample of Amer Picon from the 1940s. That was back when Amer Picon was still the “good stuff,” with its original formula and proof of 78. The current version is only 42 proof, practically anemic by comparison.

In the interests of science, I decided to compare the two versions against each other to see how much things had really changed. It should be noted that the 1940s version was at least partially oxidized, and there’s no telling how much effect that had on its flavor. We can hope not much, but there’s really no way to tell.

Amer Picon, circa 1940s, 39% ABV (unavailable)

The nose is warm caramel, slightly sweet and inviting. On the palate, the caramel takes on a burnt edge, dry and with a flavor that could be licorice, along with bitter oranges. There’s some heat to it and a rough character. The bitterness reminds me of quinine, which was in Gaétan Picon’s original recipe. I suspect that some of the orange flavor has faded over time. But that’s just a guess. This is an interesting liqueur, but I’m not sure I’d say it’s a pleasant one to drink.

Amer Picon, current, 21% ABV ($18)

This is more what I had in mind. The aroma is dominated by sweet oranges, fresh and fruity. Sweet oranges make up the initial hit of flavor, before changing over to bitterness on the finish. There is no real heat, as you’d expect from the proof. It is balanced and tasty, a very pleasant aperitif.

My preference is, fortunately, for the current formulation. Even still, you’re not going to get any — not in the United States, anyway — without going to some trouble. But I think it’s worth it.

Amaro History Ingredients Recipes

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.)

Amaro Drink Recipes

Recipe: The Caprican Cooler

When I mentioned to a friend recently that I had made a batch of Picon Punches, he joked that he preferred the Caprican Cooler. I didn't know what he was talking about, but apparently fans of Battlestar Galactica will recognize that both Picon and Caprica are colonies (planets?) in the show. The discussion ended with me pledging to create a drink to fit the name.

I wanted to make something that was akin to a Picon Punch, and also wanted it to have a vibrant color. (I imagined that Caprica was one of those brightly-colored planets like Mars.) So this is what I came up with:


The Caprican Cooler

 Build in a highball glass over ice:

2 oz Campari
1/2 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz lemon juice
2 oz club soda

Give it a quick stir.

Float 1 oz of aged rum. (I used Flor de Caña Grand Reserve 7 years.)

Garnish with a lemon twist.



It came out pretty tasty. I tried to take the edge off the Campari, but still keep the bitter flavors that dominate the Picon Punch. Like that drink, this one packs quite a punch.

(Thanks to Dan Chadwick of Kindred Cocktails for his feedback on the early recipe.)