Amer Picon: A French Secret Weapon for Classic Cocktails

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Amer Picon: A French Secret Weapon for Classic Cocktails

The first time I encountered Amer Picon, it was while sipping drinks barside at one of my favorite cocktail bars of all time, the dearly departed Pinewood of Decatur, Georgia. The bar, which failed to survive the initial onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic like so many others, specialized in a wide array of modern cocktails, but was especially at home with whiskey-based creations. Seeming to revel in creating subtly exotic variations on classic themes, one of their star drinks was a Black Manhattan riff called the Quadrophenia—dark, beguiling and bittersweet, crowned with a strip of flamed orange peel, it was a delight to the senses. And its secret weapon? Homemade Amer Picon.

Reading those words, “Amer Picon” on the menu, a curiosity was born. In the years since, I’ve occasionally read about this legendary French variety of bitter citrus liqueur, well-known in Europe but unavailable for decades in the U.S.A. Occasionally, I’ve considered making my own homemade version of Amer Picon, but never have I bothered to follow through. Recently, though, I decided to finally commit to the quest to recreate The Pinewood’s classic Quadrophenia, and more deeply explore the options that exist for cocktail geeks in the U.S.A. who want to lay hands on some real Amer Picon of their own.

What I discovered pleased me greatly: There are indeed several genuine, American-made versions of Amer Picon that aren’t too difficult to find on the market today, and they can be used to recreate any number of classic cocktails—including my beloved Quadrophenia.

But first, a word on Amer Picon itself.

What Is Amer Picon?

Amer Picon is a bitter, citrus-infused liqueur, and might best be thought of as a distant cousin to the Italian amaro family. The French term “Amer” literally means “bitter,” and Amers are thus a category in the French spirits world, with many variations that are all bitter and flavored with fruit, herbs and spices.

Amer Picon is specifically named after its creator, Frenchman Gaéton Picon, a soldier and distiller who created the liqueur in 1837 while stationed in Algeria. As quinine was the only effective anti-malarial available at the time, soldiers were often issued it as a prophylactic, but the extremely bitter taste made it difficult to choke down. Picon, as a distiller, remedied this by creating a liqueur based around the flavor of bitter orange peel and gentian, sweetening it to counteract the bitterness, and keeping the cinchona bark (quinine) for its medical properties. This original version of “Amer Picon” was manufactured at a sturdy 39% ABV (78 proof), and was quite a fortifying dram for the soldiers, but it quickly became popular throughout Europe and beyond.

Amer Picon thus soon traveled around the world, and during the golden age of cocktails it found its way into a number of classic recipes. By the 1970s, however, as lighter spirits came into vogue, the original French versions of Amer Picon (which are quite plentiful in Europe) were altered to suit changing tastes. The newer versions were much weaker, at 21% ABV (42 proof), and less robustly flavorful. Today, these are still the versions you’ll find in Europe, with two primary labels—Picon Bière, a bitter apéritif that is popular to add to glasses of beer in Northern France near Belgium, and Picon Club, an apéritif that is apparently consumed both neat and added to white wine. Neither version, though, has the strength or intensity of the original version of Amer Picon.

amer-picon-bottles-inset.jpgAmer Picon as it exists in Europe today.

Amer Picon in the U.S.A.

Amer Picon has something of a legendary status among American bartenders and booze collectors at least partially because it’s always been hard to get in the U.S. The French versions haven’t been distributed in this country since at least the 1970s, with the official reason being that the spirit contains the flowering plant calamus, which is prohibited by the FDA for questionable health interactions. Thus, much like absinthe, Picon was for a long time a bottle that you could only get abroad. Many substitutions have commonly been suggested, with the most popular available in the U.S. perhaps being Bigallet China-China liqueur.

Of course, you can’t stop amateur and professional mixologists from taking that scarcity as a challenge, which meant that DIY formulations of Amer Picon also became common in high-end cocktail bars. Seattle bartender Jamie Boudreau created what is often referred to as the gold standard of these DIY Picon replacements, basing his recipe around the Italian amaro Ramazzotti, infused with orange peel and orange bitters. This is the version I first encountered in Atlanta, in fact, as The Pinewood’s bar staff created their own homemade Amer Picon for use in the Quadrophenia.

At the same time, though, professional microdistilleries also have gotten in on the quest to replicate the lost Amer Picon, with varying degrees of price and success. Torani Amer is likely the most widespread of these creations, and is the only alcoholic product produced by a company much better known for flavored cafe syrups. However, at only $10 a bottle, it’s perhaps safe to say that this Amer isn’t exactly trying to recreate the original Amer Picon in the most meticulous way. More faithful versions of the recipe, meanwhile, can be found from other distilleries such as The Depot Craft Brewery & Distillery’s (of Reno, Nevada) Amer Depot, or Golden Moon Distillery’s (Golden, Colorado) Amer dit Picon.

golden-moon-amer-picon.JPGThanks to Golden Moon for making this essay possible.

The latter, from Golden Moon, is an especially interesting example, as master distiller Stephen Gould based their Amer dit Picon on the original recipe from Gaéton Picon, trying to replicate the 1830s version as closely as physically possible, including the full 78 proof. This arguably makes this bottle—which I acquired a sample of from Golden Moon for my own experiments—the closest thing to the authentic, pre-1970s Amer Picon available on the market today. Short of finding an ancient, dusty bottle of the original, this version of Amer Picon is probably the route that modern cocktail geeks will want to explore.

With that said, Amer Picon is still largely unknown to the vast majority of spirits and cocktail fans in the U.S., outside of odd regional footnotes such as northern Nevada, where Picon Punch is the unofficial state drink, owing to a large population of Basque immigrants who brought a taste for Picon with them when settling in the area in the 19th century. These bastions have kept a taste for traditional Picon preparations alive, even as bootleg and DIY versions of Amer Picon have increasingly found their way into modern mixology as ingredients in more complex cocktails.

Cocktails Made with Amer Picon

After reaching out to Golden Moon, and receiving a bottle of their Amer dit Picon, I knew it was time to dive head first into an exploration of how Picon would function in a variety of classic cocktails—including my long-lost Quadrophenia. To test the bottle out, I made four different cocktails that feature Picon, with a variety of base spirits that include gin, rye whiskey, tequila and bourbon. Here are those drinks.

Note: I also sampled Golden Moon Amer dit Picon on its own, and found that it is as aggressively flavorful as the legend would suggest. Zesty and citrus-forward on the nose, with notes of wildflowers and anise, it features a very strong bitter backbone on the palate, chased by woody and resinous notes, along with bitter orange and mocha. I have to say that even for someone accustomed to drinking bitter liqueur such as amaro neat, Amer dit Picon is pretty bracingly bitter consumed all on its own, or over ice. I am most likely to think of this bottle as a cocktail ingredient to be used in small doses, for complexity, rather than a bottle for apéritif drinking.

Brittany Cocktail

Named for the region in Northwest France bordering the English Channel, this is a fruity, citrus-forward gin cocktail that incorporates a little Amer Picon to give it a bitter backbone.

— 2 oz gin
— .5 oz Amer Picon
— .5 oz lemon juice
— .5 oz orange juice
— ½ tsp superfine sugar

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice, and shake well. Strain into cocktail coupe and garnish with orange twist.

Of the cocktails I made with Amer Picon, I think this may have been my least favorite. The bitterness of the Picon blends in with the resinous notes of the gin, and it seems to override both the tartness of the citrus juice and whatever sweetness is lent by the small amount of sugar. The finished drink seems a bit too flat, too dry and too bitter for my tastes—I would probably like it to be both tarter and sweeter in the future. Thankfully, I liked the other cocktails significantly more.

Brooklyn Cocktail

The Brooklyn is probably the most common cocktail made throughout the U.S. that specifically calls for Amer Picon, and is also one of the five classic cocktails named for New York’s boroughs, either second or third in popularity (along with the Bronx cocktail) after the ubiquitous Manhattan. The Brooklyn is essentially a Manhattan riff, although it perhaps has more in common with the Toronto, thanks to the addition of several notable bitter liqueurs.

— 2 oz rye whiskey
— 1 oz dry vermouth
— .25 oz maraschino liqueur
— .25 oz Amer Picon

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, along with ice. Stir gently until chilled. Strain into a cocktail coupe and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

The Brooklyn cocktail I made at home with Golden Moon Amer dit Picon had a lovely, spicy rye whiskey base, along with a notable maraschino note, and a bittersweet finish that was lightly herbal. The Luxardo maraschino cherry played particularly well in this drink, and a tiny bit of the juice brought it into lovely harmony. I can see why the Brooklyn is considered an underrated classic of the genre. However, many of the Brooklyn cocktails made in the U.S., like the one in the video below, are still made without Amer Picon due to a lack of availability for home mixologists.

Ciudad Cocktail

Golden Moon’s own Stephen Gould created this imaginative reenvisioning of the Brooklyn, which bases itself around tequila. “Ciudad” is of course Spanish for “town,” and this cocktail evokes both the Brooklyn and a tequila-twisted version of the classic Martinez.

— 2 oz tequila
— 1 oz sweet vermouth
— .25 oz amer picon
— .25 oz dry curaco

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, and stir gently to chill. Strain into a cocktail coupe, and garnish with a twist of orange.

I was surprised with this drink to find that the tequila was quite expressive, shining through more clearly than the whiskey in the Brooklyn or gin in the Brittany. The vermouth sort of blends into the flavor profile here, softening it a bit, leaving you with a nice, citrus-inflected tequila dinner drink with a slightly bitter edge. Not bad at all.

Quadrophenia Cocktail

And finally, it was time for me to recreate the Quadrophenia I had long been missing from dearly departed bar The Pinewood in Decatur, Georgia. This cocktail is a take off the Black Manhattan, which is itself a Manhattan riff that is substantially transformed (and darkened in a lovely way) by the addition of Averna Amaro. I have often made Black Manhattans at home over the years, and I tend to prefer a 50/50 blend between Averna and classic sweet vermouth (I use Carpano Antica Formula) rather than replacing all of the vermouth entirely, as some recipes call for. To this recipe, we’re also adding a small portion of Golden Moon Amer dit Picon, and a dash of Old Forester’s Bohemian Bitters, which the company refers to as “cherry tobacco bitters.”

— 2 oz bourbon
— .5 oz sweet vermouth
— .5 oz Averna amaro
— .25 oz Amer Picon
— 1 dash Old Forester Bohemian Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, and stir gently to chill. Strain into a cocktail coupe, and garnish with a flamed orange peel expressed above the glass.

This cocktail is as wonderful as I remembered—the Amer Picon works beautifully in enhancing the slight bitterness of the Averna, adding balance to a drink that is otherwise very rich, bittersweet, silky and beguiling. It’s a fruity, dark, decadent but sophisticated cocktail, and one that I’m hoping to keep alive in The Pinewood’s honor. And now that I have Amer Picon in my life, I can recreate it more closely than ever before. If you’re a cocktail geek like me, consider seeking out some Amer Picon of your own to make a Quadrophenia tonight.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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