My wife and I needed to get away from our busy North Bay schedule; traffic, work, shuttling our preteen daughter around. We needed a break. We decided to go visit her sister, who had recently moved to Nevada and had been bugging us to come visit.
“Why don’t we go to Basque food?” said my sister in law when we arrived. We were visiting her new home in Minden, Nevada and for some reason the little quaint town has at least six Basque eateries. One for every thousand inhabitants.
“I suppose we could do that,” I replied a little hesitantly. Basque has always meant to me an old restaurant-complete with plastic tablecloths and waitresses older than my mother- which serves lots and lots of meat. The last time we went out to Basque food, my wife made the remark, “This looks like the place that used to serve Lancers Rose in the ceramic bottle,” only to watch as a waiter opened a bottle of the slightly effervescent pink wine at the table next to us.
To say that my interest level was not very high would be an understatement.
“We could get Picon Punches,” said my sister in law.
Hmmmn. Now that sounded interesting. I had never really had a Picon Punch and- being a bartender- the idea of having something new (that actually is quite old) appealed to me.
What the heck, we had gotten out of the North Bay for a weekend, why not roll the dice.
Originally made with Amer Picon, an orange bitter cordial created by a Frenchman named Gaetan Picon in 1837; the Picon Punch is considered to be the national drink of the Basque people. Unfortunately the Basques, who are nestled in the Pyrennees Mountains located in-between Spain and France, don’t have a country of their own. They do however have their own language and culture as well as a taste for bitter aperitifs.
Amer Picon’s bitter formulation consists of cinchona bark, oranges, and gentian and weighs in at a lightweight 17% alcohol or 34 proof. It tastes a bit like Campari and is traditionally served before dinner to stimulate the appetite.
We arrived at the restaurant located near a golf course, (it even had a golf cart parking lot!) and were guided to our table by a gray haired gentlemen with a slight stutter in his step. Our waitress arrived slowly some time later, the woman could easily have been someone’s grandmother, she had spectacles securely attached to her by a gold chain and had mastered that wonderful shade of blue hair so highly sought after in a certain generation.
“May I get you some Picon Punches to start?” she asked politely.
“Of course,” I said. After all that was the sole reason I had agreed to come.
We perused the menu; lamb chops, beef steak, pork chops, veal chops and lamb steak.
I’ve worked in restaurants for over twenty-five years and I have never heard of lamb steak. Since this was a mini vacation and an adventure-we were having Picon Punches after all- I thought I would double the bet and go with the lamb steak too.
When the drinks arrived in short stemmed bell glasses-the classic glass I was informed- we all raised our punches and uttered a toast in Euskara, the Basque language.
“Topa!” we said with enthusiasm after some coaching from our matronly server.
We each took a long draught and then nobody moved.
It was undeniably the most bitter and foul tasting drink that I have ever tried. I mean, I like bitter liqueurs, Fernet Branca after a meal, I like. Campari and soda before dining, certainly. Even Jaegermeister on a ski trip, count me in. But I will never drink a Picon Punch again as long as I live.
It might have something to do with the fact that real Amer Picon is almost impossible to get in the United States. It seems that about 20 years ago the manufacturers of Amer Picon lowered the proof, from 78 to 34. Its popularity faded with its proof. More recently Torani, known for their coffee flavoring syrups, came out with a product called Torani Amer which is advertised as having a similar flavor to the original spirit and is about the same proof. It was this that our foul concoctions were made, hopefully the original tasted better.
We avoided the embarrassment of sending our drinks back by pouring them all into the empty carafe of house wine that was generously provided. After consuming the most Atkins friendly meal that I have had in quite some time, I realized three things. I don’t like Picon Punches; there is a reason I had never heard of lamb steak, and finally; Boy, did I miss the North Bay.

Picon Punch
2 ounces Torani Amer (Amer Picon)
1/2 ounce brandy
Large splash of grenadine
Soda water
Lemon twist

Coat the inside of a highball glass (or stemmed sour glass) with grenadine. Fill with ice, add either of the Amers, top with soda water and stir. Float brandy on top and garnish with lemon twist. Serve with lamb steak and stomach antacid.