It was with some surprise that I realized a few weeks ago that in the four years that I’ve been at this project, I have yet to write up the Picon Punch. Quel dommage! I should be ashamed.
The Picon Punch is a very specific sort of drink—savory, refreshing, tall and, if you’re into this sort of thing, exceptionally good. My first proper Picon Punch, which came after many not terribly successful attempts on my own, was had at the hands of Dr. Cocktail. He, being the purveyor of all manner of great cocktails, made one for Dan and I while we were over; realizing that the error of the Picon Punch was, as we had suspected, in our incompetence rather than the drink itself, we’ve spent the last few years practicing and perfecting it. These days we burn through a bottle of Torani Amer every month or two, making both the traditional recipe (below) and a modified, brandy-less version given us by Eric Alperin of The Varnish. (Where you can, by the by, get a fabulous Picon Punch.)
All of which leads me to Bakersfield. Yes, that Bakersfield. The Picon Punch, being primarily a Basque drink, can still be found at an astonishing number of bars and restaurants in Bakersfield, California, including Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace. During the Gold Rush of 1848, many Basque immigrants in Central and South America, as well as Basque people still in Europe, followed the call of gold to California. When gold turned out to be in shorter supply than the miners hunting it, many Basque people settled in the Central Valley as ranchers and shepherds. That influence is still strongly felt all over the Central Valley, especially in Bakersfield, where you can walk into a bar as ask simply for a “picon” to be served a Picon Punch.
2½ oz Torani Amer*
1 oz brandy
1 tsp grenadine
Add the Torani and grenadine to a highball or collins glass filled with ice. Fill with club soda and float the brandy on top. Serve.
*The original recipe calls for Amer Picon, which has been out of production since the late ’70s. If you’re in Europe, Diageo makes Picon Club, which is an acceptable substitute (though Doc swears it is not even close to the original). Torani Amer—the only Torani product which contains alcohol—is as good as it gets here in the States unless you happen upon a dusty thirty year-old bottle of real Amer Picon.
Torani just recently altered the formulation of Torani Amer to a more flavorful, orange-forward version than the previous, intensely vegetal one. Unfortunately, the bottles appear exactly the same; I have yet to figure out a way to tell them apart other than with guesswork based on the amount of dust on the shoulders of the bottle. The new bottles make a much, much better Picon Punch, though the old one wasn’t terrible. Your first Picon Punch may be a bit challenging—it has a unique flavor—but one of these really hits the spot on a hot summer evening.