The origin of the Picon punch, a quintessential Western cocktail

And the new Nevada-made ingredient that changes the whole story

Legendary

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The Picon punch cocktail embodies Nevada. Burning, bitter, sweet. The cocktail requires a love of browns, history and a little heat.

Drinking it is a rite of passage for newcomers. But you don't just go drink a Picon punch by yourself and suddenly become a Nevadan. You drink it with friends who dared you to try a new experience that everyone else seems to hate. 

At first, you grimace from the burn, but by the end, you order another and force others to do the same.

“If you’re a Nevada bartender you should know how to make a Winnemucca Coffee and a Picon punch," said Duncan Mitchell, owner of Chapel Tavern. “I grew up on them — that was part of my childhood — dipping my finger into my grandpa’s glass when I was a kid.” 

For the uninitiated, the Picon punch is a Basque-American cocktail made of grenadine, a strong bitter orange liqueur and club soda stirred together with cheap brandy and a lemon peel added to the top.

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Mike Higdon and Sam Gross, the city life and education reporters, go to Louis Basque Corner to drink a Picon punch. Sam Gross is from Arizona so this is his first time. Mike Higdon/RGJ

Many people seem to know of the concoction at least in passing. They hear that at first you hate it, then two drinks later, you're hooked or on the floor.

"The first two are the Picon, the third one is the punch," Louis Erreguible used to say about the cocktail. Erreguible opened Louis' Basque Corner in the 1960s. 

Obituary: Louis Erreguible of Louis' Basque Corner dies at 90

Like living in the desert, it's a love-hate experience.

The Picon punch lives a legend steeped in Western expansion, immigration and reinvention. It appears in newspapers, books, plays and hundreds of travel guides throughout the last century.

For three legislative sessions, legislators (namely Reno City Councilman David Bobzien) tried and failed to make it the official state drink.

“Around the country there’s not a lot of state drinks," Bobzien said.

He's right, about half of the United States picked a state beverage and most of them are milk. 

"But the Sazerac is the cocktail picked by New Orleans and recognized by Louisiana," he added. "Washington D.C. recognized the Rickey. I think it’s high time we do this. Especially when we’re in this spirit of growth with new people coming here. What better way to share the spirit of Nevada.”

But here's the rub: It was invented in California.

The legend of Picon

An Italian man, Gaétan (pronounced Geh-tonn) Picon, visited Algeria, Africa in 1837 while serving in the French Army. There, he discovered local herbs and made a 78-proof liqueur named Amer Picon.

Amer is French for "bitters." So, think of the bitters in a Manhattan or the dark, herbal Fernet Branca (also French and made around the same time) and other digestifs and aperitifs.

Amer Picon is the main ingredient in Picon punch, though in 1837, the cocktail had not been invented.

No one cared about Amer Picon for 40 years until it won a contest the French government held to find a replacement for absinthe (presumably because everyone needed to stop freaking out all the time).

“Yes the French government offered a prize of 100,000 francs for a substitute for absinthe which would quiet the nerves, induce a healthful slumber and do no harm. Amer Picon earned the money," according to a 1906 article in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Amer Picon pushed out absinthe as the top drink.

"The reign of absinthe is drawing to a close. He has been a most malevolent king, eating out the brain of his subjects," according an 1883 article dispatched from the Boston Advertiser about Amer Picon.

The author suspected Amer Picon would eventually turn evil, too.

Nonetheless, Mr. Picon sold more than 3 million liters in France in 1871. It spread across Europe and eventually to the New World, selling 25 million bottles by 1885.

At the same time, the Basque people — wedged between France and Spain — immigrated to California looking for gold.

By the time they arrived, the gold rush was over. So, they turned to sheepherding and opened boardinghouses and family-style restaurants for their fellow immigrants.

In America, Amer Picon was marketed as a patent medicine. Patent medicines purportedly calmed fevers, prevented Malaria and made everyone look good to the opposite sex. 

But Amer Picon at least helped with the Malaria because it included cinchona bark. 

A front-page advertorial appeared in The New York Times Sunday Edition in 1889 pushing Amer Picon as the newest medicinal tonic. The United Grower's Co. told people to dilute the bitter with water, drink it by the spoonful or take a shot when sick.

But. But! They also said it could be enjoyed with soda water as a refreshment. Similar articles in other newspapers also recommended adding grenadine to make the herbal liqueur easier to drink.

The groundwork was laid for a cocktail. The British Army similarly convinced infantrymen to drink quinine-enriched tonic to stave off Malaria — with gin.

By 1893, Amer Picon shipped West.

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The Basque cocktail, Picon punch, is the quintessential Basque cocktail that's commonly found around Nevada. It's exceptionally easy to make on your own at home, too. Here's a quick video showing you how to make one at Louis' Basque Corner. Wochit

The Picon punch is born

Somewhere in North Beach, San Francisco in the late 19th century, the Picon punch cocktail was created.

"In San Francisco, North Beach was the hub of cocktail culture," Shanna Farrell, an oral historian and cocktail expert at University of California, Berkley, told the RGJ. "There was a block on Columbus Avenue called 'Devil’s Acre' ... That was where everybody was coming through the port, lots of immigrants, especially from Italy."

The first newspaper reference points to the Picon punch's creation about 1899. But it might've started a little earlier.

A play called "The Heart Line: A Drama of San Francisco" takes place in 1877, though it was published in 1907. One of the characters compares his pain of losing a woman to the pain of drinking a Picon punch. It's difficult to tell if the reference is contemporary or in keeping with the period of the play. 

In either case, it's believed the cocktail was created in the Basque-American boardinghouses that no longer exists.

Sometimes the Noriega Hotel in Bakersfield, California gets credit for the creation. But separate accounts point to people finding the cocktail in San Francisco and taking it to other large Basque communities in Nevada and California.

Basque people set up boardinghouses in San Francisco as early as 1870. Hotel Vasco and The Basque Hotel were among the first.

“(Hotel bartenders) were the social concierge of town, so they would be the one to lock up the hotel, point people to the right place and were the tourist centers," Farrell said.

It would make sense that immigrants would've come together over a familiar drink and a hotel bartended might've created a cocktail somewhere in the mess of it all, she said.

If bartenders knew bitters aided digestion and staved off Malaria and some Basque patrons just ate a giant family-style meal, they probably would've served Amer Picon.

But what if someone didn't like the bitter flavor? We already know people suggested adding club soda and grenadine to make Amer Picon more palatable. Simply tossing a lemon or lime peel on top would've completed the cocktail. 

The whole thing just needed a catchy name to go viral.

Though strictly speaking, the Picon punch does not qualify as a punch at all because punches are made with fruit juices and tend to come in bowls for parties. The lemon is more of a garnish, really. It clearly wasn't a lengthy brainstorming session.

The Picon punch goes mainstream

In 1899, Louis Vetter, a socialite and councilman in Los Angeles constantly mentioned in the newspaper, brought the drink to town after a visit to San Francisco, according to Los Angeles Herald archives.

"When you feel like a wad of dry cotton, a Picon punch will make you as contented and salubrious as if you had been elected mayor," Vetter said.

He was never elected mayor, despite several attempts.

At the same time, a man named Herman Thyes expanded a popular saloon in downtown Reno, which eventually settled with the name, Thyes and Co.

He moved from San Francisco and frequently visited home to see family, friends and business partners, according to train manifests.

He opened three saloons during the course of 20 years. He also served as fire commissioner.

Every few weeks, he introduced a new drink to town — an imported beer, a fancy cocktail, a soda machine — and was considered the most cutting edge saloon owner in Reno. 

In 1900, he brought the "Picon lemonade" to town. One week later, the drink name was corrected to Picon punch, according to Nevada State Journal archives.

Soon thereafter, the recipe appears in motel bartender guides, cookbooks and newspapers.

By 1906, the Picon punch made it to Hawaii. In a summer home-cocktail guide the Honolulu Star-Advertiser wrote:

“Lately the Picon punch has been around Honolulu getting acquainted. If there is any liquor in this fine drink it is not discernible to the taste nor do you find it in your head after a long draught. Amer Picon, an Algerian bitters, procurable in town, is at the bottom of the beverage. Take a goblet with a few lumps of ice in it, pour in one-half an inch of grenadine syrup, one inch of Amer Picon, squeeze in six drops of lime juice and then sizz in mineral water from a syphon until the goblet is nearly full. Stir with a spoon and if the mixture has the rich, dark brown color of Hire’s root beer, it is well made. If not, put in more Amer Picon. Then drink and drink and thank the French government for providing you with the summer beverage par excellance."

The Los Angeles Herald called the Picon punch a "temperance" drink, which sounds like a bad joke. Most people today consider the 80-proof cocktail pretty strong. But before prohibition people drank cask-strength bourbon or rum by the pint or half pint every day with breakfast.

Brandy was sometimes added to the Picon punch recipe in bars, presumably to amp up the original recipe. But like today, the addition didn't seem to improve the flavor for many.

In the fiction book, "Three Rich Men" written in 1932, the brandy float is addressed thusly:

"D'you care for a picon punch, Will? It isn't made in a bowl. And there won't be a damnable brandy float on the top..." 

The character recalls a bad time in Chicago:

"I said to her, 'A Picon punch,' and when it was brought it was undrinkable. I dressed...went down to the bar. Showed the bartender how to mix one. We sipped it. He tried his hand; wasn't right. We drank it anyhow. Then I...anyhow, I don't believe I ever did go back to my room."

The Picon punch gains citizenship

Cue prohibition. All references to the Picon punch disappear until after Amendment 21 passed.

Then it comes back with a vengeance.

The Picon punch makes numerous appearances throughout casual articles listing the food and drink served at soirees and events. It also shows up in a hilarious series of court reports wherein people started fights after consuming three or more.

Torani, the Italian syrup company that makes all the flavors squirtable into morning coffee, opened a grocer and drink mix maker in San Jose, California in 1925. It started making Picon-style amer to fulfill demand for the original Amer Picon, which was difficult to find after prohibition.

In the 1930s, advertisements for Amer Picon appeared again, pushing the "famous Picon punch" recipe. But it wasn't the same and Torani Amer dominated the competition.

"From what I understand, Amer Picon went through a lot of changes," Andrea Ramirez, a Torani spokesperson, told the RGJ. "The French one was initially changed to lower and lower proof. Ours has always been closer to the original 80 proof."

Amer Picon is now 18 proof while Torani Amer is 78 proof.

About 2000, Amer Picon stopped shipping to the United States all together, though versions of the amer still exists, and it can be purchased in France or online.

Original antique bottles of Amer Picon sell for thousands of dollars online and don't last long in a drink that demands 2.5 ounces per serving. Some people also tried their hand at homemade replicas.

Briefly, the Whitney Peak Hotel's Heritage restaurant — now Roundabout Grill — served Picon Punches with the lower alcohol French Amer Picon in 2014. Whitney Peak staff discovered the bitter in the store room after taking it over from Comm Row and Fitzgerald's Casino before that.

The bottle survived two life cycles and made it into grand opening drinks.

Once Whitney Peak ran out, they discovered Amer Picon was no longer available and switched to Torani's version.

Picon revivalists

That brings us to today.

Torani carried the Picon punch torch in America for almost 80 years.

"It’s the lone alcohol product we currently make," Ramirez said. "It’s been about the same size of our portfolio ever since (1925). There’s one distributor buying it in Boston. But it’s mostly sold near large Basque communities."

Torani doesn't even advertise the alcoholic product.

She said Torani's strongest markets are Elko and Bakersfield, California. In each city, the Picon punch is made differently. In Ely, it's made with gin instead of brandy. Some bars serve it in a high ball glass, most use the Louie Punch glass. Some garnish with lemon and others use lime or oranges.

Patrons swear by their favorite minor variation whether it's from The Martin Hotel in Winnemucca or The Star in Elko.

Chris Shanks, owner of Louis' Basque Corner, said his bartenders probably serve nine variations depending who orders it. More grenadine for the ladies, more amer for the Bascos, for example.

And yet, two new distillers won't let the 180-year-old bitter die. They offer new competition to a market that probably didn't need it. In many ways, the whole revival is reminiscent of America's 19th century cocktail obsession.

In Golden, Colorado, Golden Moon Distillery makes Amer dit Picon using the original 1837 recipe.

Owner and distiller Steven Gould found a step-by-step guide from an original Amer Picon distillery. He also realized he owned two antique bottles of the stuff.

"Before I went down the rabbit hole, I drank a lot of pre-1880 Amer Picon," Gould said. "It was not an easy thing to make."

Gould, who is from Reno, spent two years researching how to make Mr. Picon's 1837 Algerian, anti-Malaria bitter with all the original ingredients and processes.

He said no one will find a more authentic representation of the first recipe. 

And over on Fourth Street in Reno, sharing a parking lot with a 1960s Basque boardinghouse, another distillery started making a similar amer.

Picon made by Nevadans

After Shanks bought Louis' Basque Corner in 2011, he said he considered reviving the original Amer Picon recipe. Opening The Depot Craft Brewery Distillery next door gave him that opportunity.

The Depot quietly released Amer Depot two months ago. It's also made with cinchona, elderberries, lemon peel, quinine, various herbs, roots and orange peels soaked in The Depot's gin made from Nevada corn and barley.

Compared to The Depot and Golden Moon, modern Amer Picon and Torani Amer use neutral spirits, natural flavors, caramel coloring and juice concentrate. A taste test reveals significant differences between them all. 

Shanks worries that Amer Depot's color is too light and people will turn their noses up at it in a traditional Picon punch. So instead, the Depot created a pinkish-colored drink that tastes more like a Picon lemonade and is made with Amer Depot, club soda, pomegranate syrup, lemon and a Depot Rye Whiskey float.

It's blasphemous and delicious.

But what if Shanks is wrong? A traditional Picon punch made with Amer Depot and Churchill Vineyards brandy loses the harsh burn and gains flavors not found in any Picon punch for 100 years.

More importantly, the main ingredients come from Nevada. 

Maybe now Bobzien can convince the Nevada legislators to commit to a state drink even though Las Vegas residents and bartenders have no idea what Northern Nevadans are going on about.

Or maybe no one really owns the drink? 

After all, the main ingredient was invented in Africa by a French soldier who inspired Bascos to craft a cocktail in San Francisco that was enhanced by Italians and enjoyed by Nevadans.

Mike Higdon is the city life reporter at the RGJ and can be found on Instagram @MillennialMike, on Facebook at Mike Higdon, Reno Life and on Twitter @MikeHigdon. Many Picon punches were consumed in the making of this story.

 

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