On a recent trip to New Orleans, I found myself in an old Creole townhouse drinking a most unexpected cocktail. The hosts at this gathering were serving a mixture of cheap pilsner (in this case, cans of Miller Lite Original) and a dark-orange bitter liqueur called Amer Picon. Just a splash of the French apéritif not only bumped up the proof, but added spice and dimension to an otherwise bland light beer, resulting in a traditional French shandy called Picon Bière.
Unfortunately, these French Quarter hosts stock up on bottles of Amer Picon during visits to France, the only place in the world it’s still sold. The liqueur was created in 1837 by Gaétan Picon who—after contracting malaria while stationed in Algeria—infused alcohol with dried orange zest, gentian, quinine, sugar syrup and caramel before distilling it. Picon, who had apprenticed at French distilleries before joining the army, already knew a bit about chemistry and attributed his recovery to the botanical blend he’d created. His superiors insisted he continue to produce it for the French troops and, once his tour of duty was over in 1840, he remained in Philippeville (now called Skikda) to open his first distillery.
His Amer Africain (“African bitters”) grew to high demand, and Picon soon opened three larger distilleries in Algiers, Constantine and a city now known as Annaba. In 1862, he entered his product into the Universal Exhibition in London, where it won a bronze medal under the “Bitter Appetizers” category, prompting Picon to open a larger distillery in Marseilles and rename his creation Amer Picon.
After Picon’s death in 1882, his son and sons-in-law ran his company (by then called the House of Picon), opening branches throughout Europe while still importing oranges from Algeria to create the proprietary blend. Amer Picon began appearing in classic American cocktails around the turn of the century, as evidenced by many of the first bartending books, which contained now-classic recipes for Picon drinks like Brooklyn and the Liberal.
Somewhere along the line, the Picon brand changed hands and the closely guarded recipe was altered. The ABV was also lowered from its original 39 percent to 21 percent, and eventually to 18 percent. “The recipe was most likely changed in the 1970s, like a lot of things do when they switch manufacturers,” explains Andrew Meltzer, assistant bar manager at 15 Romolo in San Francisco, which makes its own Picon. “When you make a change in ownership, you need to reveal secret recipes, and it was probably being made with items no longer allowed by the Food and Drug Administration. So oftentimes recipes had to change to meet legal standards.”
It was around that same time that American cocktail drinkers began to favor sweet, fruity cocktails. “The change in the American palate in the 1980s certainly affected European liqueurs that were once popular in the past and are now coming back into popularity again,” explains Meltzer. “Now, we’re returning to drier, bitter and more complex flavors.”
British alcohol supplier Diageo currently owns the Picon brand and produces two versions in lieu of the original: Amer Picon Club, for mixing with wine and cocktails, and Amer Picon Bière, for adding to beer. Though the diluted modern version is commercially unavailable in the U.S., original bottles—while extremely rare—are still possible to obtain via bottle collectors or forgotten backstock in old liquor shops.
But for the practical bartender, blending a house version has become the de-facto method. Darren Scott, beverage manager at laV, creates an Amer Picon with a bitter orange base created from a mass of fresh orange peels that he infuses with 100-proof vodka for up to two months, depending on desired strength. It’s then mixed with two parts amaro—he recommends something mild like Ramazzotti—with one part French Combier, the original triple sec from the Loire Valley in France.
At 15 Romolo—once a Basque family restaurant from the 1940s until it was turned into a bar in the 1990s—the bar team creates a Basque Picon for Picon Punch (known as “the National drink of the Basques”), a traditional apéritif at Basque meals. “A lot of neighbors who used to dine at the restaurant will still pop in for [one],” Meltzer says. For an added $5, guests can even order a secret, off-menu version made with French-produced Amer Picon, which is kept tucked away until someone asks the right way.