A STORY WITH PUNCH
Learn how Picon came to Northern Nevada.
WRITTEN BY SHARON HONIG-BEAR
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NEVADA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
If there is one drink that defines our region, it is the Picon punch, that devilishly potent libation. For many it’s a rite of passage: You really haven’t been to Nevada until you taste one.
The history of this drink is somewhat clouded, but what an exotic path it is. If you are a mixologist, your recipe might read: one part Africa and the French Foreign Legion, blend with an equal part of immigrant sheepherders, and cheerfully serve it up in the network of Basque hotels that dotted the West. Voilà! You have a classic cocktail whose name says it all: It carries quite a punch.
The key ingredient in the drink is the bitter apéritif called Amer Picon. The name comes from the French word for bitter (amer) and the name of the creator of the apéritif, Gaëtan Picon. Stationed as a sergeant in Algeria, he concocted the liqueur-like potion in 1837. Its intensely sweet and bitter flavors come from dried orange peels, gentian, and cinchona (whose bark contains quinine). The ingredients served as an effective way to combat malaria and other diseases for the cavalry in North Africa. In Europe, Amer Picon often was added to beer. The cocktail, so well known here, was all but unknown on the continent.
The true French product now is nearly impossible to find in the United States. People still search dusty corners in old liquor stores to find the elusive original. Most bars use an inexpensive item (one considered of lesser quality) made by Torani. In its favor, it’s higher in alcohol than the original (78 proof vs. 42 proof), and that contributes to the punch of the drink. Over the years, ads appeared for Dubonnet Amer Picon, Segalas America Picon, and other imitators. Whatever amer you start with, add some grenadine, soda water, a float of brandy, a twist of lemon, and you are imbibing a little bit of Basque tradition.
A direct and magical link between the Basques and the Picon punch has proven elusive in research. It’s speculated that Basques knew amer from the home country, but the cocktail seems to be a Basque-American innovation.
In Chorizos in an Iron Skillet: Memories And Recipes From An American Basque Daughter, author May Ancho Davis states, “This drink is a true American-Basque invention.”
George Yori, who grew up in an early ranching family in the area and who went on to be one of the founders of Eldorado Resort Casino, mentions in his oral history collected by the University of Nevada, Reno, “The men used to make Picon punch, which comes from the Basque sheepherders. Men always made those.”
The Picon also was popular in Italian establishments in San Francisco in the mid-1900s and in Basque dining halls throughout the West.
The first appearance in Reno can be traced to April 28, 1900, when a saloon at 139 Virginia St. advertised, “Try a Picon lemonade at Thyes.” Just a month later, the ad was changed to “Picon punch (new).” A small editorial comment a few weeks later in the Daily Nevada State Journal said, “The most refreshing drink is a Picon punch at Thyes.” The Colombo restaurant in Reno claimed, in a Nevada State Journal spread in 1937, “With all due modesty we claim the credit of introducing the picon punch.” By the 1970s, Louis’ Basque Corner in Reno was advertising its “famous picon punch.” Everyone wanted a piece of Picon history.
Thyes Saloon and the Colombo are long gone, but the Picon punch lives on in Basque restaurants and local watering holes. How fitting that an apéritif that had its origins in the hot desert of North Africa would find new life in the high desert of Northern Nevada and the West.
Sharon Honig-Bear was a longtime restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. Currently, she is a tour leader with the Historic Reno Preservation Society and founder of the annual Reno Harvest of Homes Tour.