Ask for a Picon Punch in Bakersfield and the locals will know you are an out-of-towner. Here in Bako, it's just a Picon, thank you very much. Outside of the Basque country and Central California's Bakersfield, which has the largest Basque population in the States, most of the general populace have no idea what a Picon Punch is. Historically, the key ingredient — and the one from which the drink gets its name — is Amer Picon, a French digestif strongly flavored with bitter orange, as well as cinchona and gentian, much like an Italian amaro.
Today, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find authentic Amer Picon in the U.S. Since the 1980s, the bitter bottling hasn't even been imported to America. Moreover, in the 1970s, the House of Picon changed the recipe, cutting the proof from a hearty 78 to a tamer 39, and changing the flavor profile. Needless to say, it's been a long time since anyone has tasted the real thing. Indeed, as noted cocktail historian Ted Haigh emphatically told us, “You can not make a satisfactory Picon Punch with modern Amer Picon. The great Picon Punch was, and will remain forever, cognac, real grenadine (not the ersatz bottled stuff), and Amer Picon … at 78 proof.” None of this bothers the industrious Basque populace of Bakersfield, which has simply adopted a necessary substitute, the American-made Torani Amer. It's a much more herbal digestif, lacking the orange character of the original, but it makes up for it with the alcoholic kick necessary for the drink.
Bako's Basque community is fiercely loyal — to each other and to the tradition of sipping Picon Punch. If you happen to find yourself day-tripping or driving through town, you would be well served stopping by for a hearty Bako Basque meal (at noon and 7 sharp); if food isn't in the cards, at least swing by for some bibulous nourishment at one or all of the local favorites — Wool Growers, Pyrenees and the Noriega Hotel. Despite the recipe for Picon Punch being so standardized (see recipe below), you'll get a slightly different take on the drink, depending on who's pouring behind the bar at each restaurant.
3. Wool Growers
At Wool Growers, it's often Joe Coscarat, who has been at the family spot for over twenty years (the other barman, 81-year-old Pete, has been there for 31 years). The bar at Wool Growers, set aside from the restaurant as is typical, bustles with local energy and savoir-vivre. As a visitor, you are likely to be roped into conversation and embraced wholly. Joe is a bit of a showman, embracing the role of barman/confessor/entertainer with ease. His Picon, which uses only two drops of grenadine, is bracing and slightly sour, really showing the herbaceous nature of Torani Amer. 620 E. 19th St., Bakersfield; 661-327-9584.
Weekends usually mean loud music and a rugged crowd in the equally rugged bar space at Pyrenees. The Picon here, as mixed by efficient and knowledgeable bartender Brittany Webb, runs a bit on the sweeter side — perhaps due to a freer hand with the grenadine, which counters the bitterness of the Torani. Webb also uses a lemon peel instead of the standard wedge, releasing the oils before dropping it into the glass. 601 Sumner St., Bakersfield; 661-323-0053.
Dating back to 1893, the Noriega Hotel somehow feels the most old-school, perhaps because it retains more of the stark, turn-of-the-century boarding house atmosphere (it is in fact the last real Basque boarding house left standing). Sitting at the worn, wooden bar in a room dotted with square, four-top tables full of locals, you are likely to find Linda McCoy, whose family has owned the hotel since 1931. Depending on how busy the restaurant and bar are, they serve anywhere from 50 to 75 Picons a week. It's a sure thing that more locals than tourists drink them, but, as McCoy observes, “tourists often ask for a signature drink, so we explain what it is and they usually order one and surprisingly enjoy it.” 525 Sumner Ave. Bakersfield; 661-322-8419.
Adapted from: Linda McCoy, of the Noriega Hotel
Makes: 1 drink
2 ½ oz Torani Amer
1 tsp. grenadine
1 oz. brandy
lemon wedge or peel
1. Pour Torani Amer and grenadine into a highball/Collins glass filled with ice.
2. Top off with club soda, leaving room for brandy.
3. Float (gently pour) brandy on top.
4. Garnish with lemon wedge or peel.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History.” Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.