by Shaun Layton | Ask the majority of North American bartenders if you can bring them back a liquid gift from Europe and the unanimous response will likely be a bottle of Amer Picon. It’s a french bitter (“amer” means “bitter” in French, as does “amaro” in Italian) that is pretty exclusive to its own country. You may be able to find it beyond France, like at Gerry’s in London’s Soho, but it’s really tough to get (Gerry’s is the mecca of booze stores, and you should go there regardless). In France, a bottle will set you back around 10-14 euros.
Gaetan Picon, a soldier for France in the 19th century, was very talented when it came to creating different types of bitters for him and his countrymen. He crafted them not for intoxicating purposes but rather too help fight off diseases like malaria when he was stationed in Algeria in the late 183o’s. It was around this time that he came up with his best recipe yet, one that would still be beneficial to one’s health, but more importantly was delicious! It took some time, but in 1862 this recipe won a bronze medal at the Universal Exhibition of London. He then built a distillery, The House of Picon, in Marseille, where it still stands today.
The process for Picon starts with dried orange peels macerating in a neutral spirit. That mixture is then redistilled and the distillate is infused with bittering agents such as gentian root and quinquina. Sugar and caramels are also added. Picon was originally sold at 39% alc, but these days they have two versions: Picon Club and Picon Biere. For whatever reasons, over time the strength has been drastically dropped. This has happened to a lot of classic liqueurs (see also Galliano). So while Amer Picon remains a fantastic product, it’s a shadow of its former self when it comes to power. Keep that in mind when you’re mixing it into the classic recipes that call for it, as you will need to adjust the quantities.
Picon Biere is made for exactly what it sounds like, Picon and beer! Go to France, hit a patio, have a croque madame, and order a Picon Biere — a nice cold Kronenbourg (or any other other French lager) finished with a generous dose of Picon. It’s a fantastic way to lubricate any lunch, or remedy a hangover. On this side of the pond, go to Wildebeest in Gastown for brunch, and if you can convince Josh (sorry in advance, Josh) to part with some of the bar’s precious Picon, you might enjoy the best croque madame you’ve ever had outside of France with a very appropriate drink.
As for the Picon Club, which is darker and higher in alcohol, try it in cocktails such as the Picon Punch, created by Basques who migrated to northern California and Nevada from France and Spain. It is said to have been created at Bakersfield’s famed Noriega, where you can still find it today, apparently served in cheesy beer mugs.
So why is Picon such a sought after product that has bartenders going out if their way to get it like it’s some first edition Superman comic? Well, everyone wants what they can’t get, and it’s pretty damn tasty! For me, it’s the perfect balance of citrus and bitter. Lots of people have tried making alternatives, such as the American-made Torani Amer, which is high proofed just like the old stuff. The best substitution that I’ve ever tried was made by ex-Vancouverite Jamie Boudreau. The recipe for his homemade version, aptly dubbed Amer Boudreau, can be found here.
So when you see a bottle of Picon hiding on a back-bar near you, ask very, very nicely for a cocktail that calls for it. I doubt you will get a Picon Punch that calls for 2 ounces of the great elixir, so ask for a Brooklyn (Rye, dry vermouth, Maraschino, Picon) or a Liberal (rye, sweet vermouth, Picon, orange bitters) at places like Wildebeest, Notturno, or L’Abattoir. And please remember to grab me a bottle the next time you’re in Europe. It’ll make me really happy!
60 ml Amer Picon
5 ml Grenadine
top with Club Soda
15 ml Cognac
Build Amer Picon, grenadine, and soda over ice. Stir, float cognac on top, garnish with lemon twist.