A Tour de France in Bitters, Liqueurs and Aperitifs
Before becoming cocktail components, many French bitters and liqueurs were brewed for health, not hedonism. The blend of bitter-sweet herbal infusions with grain alcohol was thought to cure everything from upset stomach to malaria. Though household names in France, medicinal bitters, liqueurs and their cocktail counterparts, “aperitifs”, are having a Stateside renaissance as the latest craze to bewitch bartenders and imbibers alike.
This week, Amer Picon is the first in French Morning English Edition’s series tracing the history, ingredients, and uses of French botanical bitters.
Picking on Picon
In 1837, Gaéton Picon, a Frenchman in Algeria, fell ill with a terrible fever. Seeking an antidote, he concocted a tisane of orange peel, sugar, and quinine. Finding the effects pleasant, he did what any enterprising 20-something would do: he mixed it with alcohol. The result? Amer Picon, a bittersweet orange syrup that became a staple in French bars in the late 19th century.
Thanks to its high quinine levels, French soldiers stationed in Algeria imbibed Picon as an antidote to high fever and malaria. After the war ended, the bitter orange flavor lingered on the palates of those French soldiers, inspiring M. Picon to open a distillery in Marseille devoted to churning out the alcohol of his namesake.
A deep caramel color with a fresh, lusty citrus scent, Picon can be consumed straight, in white wine, or (most popularly) in blonde or amber beer as a shandy. Originally quite strong, it now sits at 18%, making it a highly drinkable aperitif. When mixed in cocktails, it adds sweetness, complexity, and a considerable citrus finish.
Popular in northern and eastern France, Picon is prized in Alsace, where bars are required by law to stock it for “Picon bière”. Some locals even argue that they created the beverage.
Currently, Picon is only sold in France, but do not despair! If you don’t have the patience to make Picon from scratch, you may find Picon in classic cocktails such as the Brooklyn. Look for Picon on the menu at Death & Company in the East Village and Jake Walk in Brooklyn.