How to Make Picon Punch
As a native of Reno, Nevada, I distinctly remember the first time I ever ordered a Picon Punch. The drink is foreign to even niche cocktails bars, but in northern Nevada the notoriously bitter cocktail is an unquestioned tradition from the area’s vibrant Basque heritage. Nowhere is the drink more celebrated than at Louis’ Basque Corner, which has served them in downtown Reno since 1968, and the spot where I had my first Picon a few years ago.
As a novice, I downed the last of the rich reddish-brown concoction and an old-timer watching across the bar beamed as I grimaced. “The first two are the Picon, the third is the punch!” he hollered. Not one to break from tradition, I ordered another two and spent the rest of the night (and the next morning) taking the saying to heart.
Picon Punch gets its name from its use of Amer Picon, an herbal orange peel liqueur (once touted as a treatment for Malaria) that originated in France, and is especially popular in the Basque country between France and Spain. Mixed with grenadine and brandy, the drink is tart, earthy and bracing — equally suited to fighting off a winter chill as it is refreshing in the summer — and has a surprisingly long history in the American West.
Mixed with grenadine and brandy, the drink is tart, earthy, and bracing — equally suited to fighting off a winter chill as it is refreshing in the summer — and has a surprisingly long history in the American West.
“There were Basque coming in around the early 1900s,” said Gaven Sarratea, a bartender at Louis’ whose father immigrated to America from the Basque country in 1968 as a sheepherder. “They basically took that aperitif and added more booze to it and hence comes the Picon Punch. It started in Basque boarding houses but which one started it is where the argument comes in.”
As Basque immigrants came to the West Coast throughout the last century, Basque restaurants and boarding houses became their de facto winter lodgings. It’s believed that the Picon Punch was created in one such boarding house in San Francisco — although no one’s sure which one — making it a specifically American cocktail.
Louis’ was also once a boarding house for Bascos tending to livestock amongst the mountains and high deserts of the Sierra Nevadas, and still serves traditional Basque cuisine like sweet bread, oxtails, and paella, and maintains its own unique punch recipe.
“You start with a traditional Picon glass,” Gaven said, referring to a short-stemmed glass with a curved lip. “A lot of places have gone away from this, but this where it started. Fill it to the top with ice.”
Every Basque restaurant in Nevada wants to claim its Picon Punch recipe is authentic, and minor regional variations foster a lively dialogue about who exactly has it right. The Louis’ recipe, for instance, uses grenadine whereas the Star Hotel in Elko doesn’t.
“We hit it with a touch of grenadine, and then we fill it about three quarters with the Picon liqueur,” said Gaven. “Then soda water spritz, brandy floater, lemon twist.”
The herbal qualities of Amer Picon and its high-alcohol content give Picon Punch its distinctive burn and a savory bitterness like coffee or black licorice. Soda water adds effervescence to the syrupy texture while grenadine and a lemon garnish accent the subtle citrus aftertaste.
You either love it or you hate it, but you’ve got to try it.
The common consensus among most Nevadans when trying Picon Punch for the first time is: you either love it or you hate it, but you’ve got to try it. The drink is so well known that it has even been considered for Nevada’s official state drink.
“I think Nevada and all these places that have Basque people, they're kind of obsessed with the Basque culture," Gaven said. “They find it intriguing, they find it interesting and when they come to Louis' they want a Picon.”
If Louis’ is too far out of your way, Picon Punch is simple to recreate at home. Authentic Amer Picon hasn’t been exported from France for decades now; Torani handles most of the domestic American production making it somewhat of a specialty order. But once procured, Picon makes a challenging cocktail that, like the Bascos, has been at home in the American West for over 100 years.
• 2 ounces Amer Picon
• 1 tablespoon Grenadine
• ½ ounce Brandy
• soda water
• lemon peel
1. Fill Picon glass to the top with ice and add grenadine. Use a long-handled spoon to gently toss the ice and grenadine.
2. Add Amer Picon and a spritz of soda water. The glass should be mostly full at this point.
3. Float ½ ounce of brandy on top. Twist a lemon peel over drink and place on top to garnish.