Tasting Basque Nevada: Picon Punch Cocktail
Picon Punch is an iconic drink to Basque American cuisine, a niche regional specialty in the western United States.
Unlike most aspects of Basque cuisine, this drink originated within Basque American communities and then traveled eastward to Basque country. Picon Punch suggests the taste of the American West—the old West of cowboys, ranchers, and herders. Still a favorite at Basque restaurants, it is rarely recognized outside the western-most states.
I grew up in Reno, Nevada, surrounded by Basque American history. I wandered mountain trails where Basque sheepherders used to graze their flocks, ran my hands over arborgylphs carved into the soft bark of aspens, ate stew at Basque restaurants, and watched traditional dancing at Basque festivals. Basque history was Nevadan history and vice versa.
I returned to Reno before coming to Washington, D.C., to intern at the Folklife Festival. During my trip, I knew I had to try an authentic Picon Punch where it originated. My research led me to Genoa Bar and Saloon, Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor in the former state capital of Genoa.
Founded in 1885, the Genoa Bar has entertained many famous politicians, actors, and writers over the years including, among the most recognizable names, Johnny Cash and Mark Twain. The large original room hosts the original high bar that extends the length of the space. Old paintings, photographs, and spider web-covered animal antlers dot the walls.
Picon Punch has been likened to aviation fuel by Assemblyman Horne, an “honorary Basque,” who in 2013 attempted to pass a bill to make Picon Punch the Nevada state drink.
In one of the more entertaining Nevada legislative sessions, Horne was asked if Picon Punch could be made without alcohol. “I would not recommend trying to make a Picon Punch without any spirits,” he replied. “That would be like finding a Basque who has never tried lamb chops. As for the ingredients, outside of jet fuel, I could not tell you what is in it. I have had a number of Picon Punches over the years, and I have survived the experience. I intend to take my chances, yet again, this evening.”
With this rave review, I expected Picon Punch to be undrinkable. Instead what I tasted was a strong, orange-infused, bitter but smooth drink that reflected the harsh but beautiful landscape of Nevada.
I wanted to make it myself.
As soon as I got to Washington, I set about making my own Picon Punch. My first challenge was immediate: the main ingredient, the French bitter orange liqueur Amer Picon, is only available in the United States on the West Coast. In fact, outside the northern Nevada region, practically no liquor stores carry it. I scoured the internet to find this liqueur and stumbled across some recipes to make it at home.
This is a labor-intensive cocktail, since it requires you to make your own bitters, and—unless you’re able to find it in a store—macerate orange peels for your own liqueur for a week (or up to a month). But if you want to taste an aspect of Basque American heritage, it is definitely worth it!
• 1 cup 100-proof vodka
• Peels of 5 oranges
1. Soak peels of 5 oranges in 1 cup of vodka for 48 hours, or longer.
2. Strain, bottle, and refrigerate until ready to use.
(Recipe by Darren Scott)
• 2 cups Amaro Ramazzotti
• 1 cup Combier
• 1 cup orange bitters
• 1/4 cup dried bitter orange peels
1. Combine all ingredients in an airtight container.
2. Cover, refrigerate, and macerate for one week.
3. Strain and rebottle.
4. Refrigerate until ready to use.
After making the Amer Picon, you are ready to make the Picon Punch. There are several variations on this drink, but I chose to follow this recipe by Chuck Taggart.
• 2 oz. Amer Picon (substitute Amer Boudreau or Torani Amer)
• 1 tsp. grenadine
• Soda water
• Lemon peel
• 1/2 to 1 oz. brandy
1. Fill old-fashioned glass with ice.
2. Pour in Amer Picon and grenadine.
3. Pour in soda water.
4. Float brandy and lemon peel on top of drink.
At the Folklife Festival, when older Basque Americans learned I was from Nevada, they would frequently exclaim, “Where is the Picon Punch?!” I responded, “In Nevada!” While the drink was not featured at our beverage stand, it had clearly been missed.
At the end of the two-week Festival, my Amer Picon was finally ready. As a personal celebration, I went home and made myself a Picon Punch. The taste perfectly captured my experience of this celebration of Basque heritage, culture, and history.
SarahVictoria Rosemann is a media intern for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and now converted to making her own bitters.