What Is Amer Picon?

A Guide to Buying and Drinking Amer Picon

Bottles of Picon

Claus Ableiter / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Picon is the brand name for a bittersweet French apéritif with a unique orange flavor. In French, amer means "bitter," and this spirit is known best as Amer Picon (or Picon Amer). Made with orange peels, gentian root, and cinchona, Amer Picon appeared in the original recipes for many classic cocktails but is primarily enjoyed in France today. Drinkers outside of Europe, including the U.S., have been unable to find it on liquor store shelves for decades. The good news is that even if you can't get a bottle of Amer Picon itself, viable substitutes are available.

Substitutions

Amer Picon was widely available when many of the first bartending books were written, and that is why it appears in so many recipes from the time. Since it is now a challenge to find, enthusiasts who want to recreate those drinks must look for alternatives.

In 2008, Golden Moon Distillery opened its doors in Golden, Colorado, with a focus on reviving old herbal liqueurs. Among their offerings is Golden Moon Amer dit Picon. According to head distiller Stephen Gould, it uses the original 1830s recipe of Amer Picon, with one exception. Golden Moon Amer dit Picon is bottled at 39 percent ABV (78 proof). It is available at a number of liquor stores, including online and those that specialize in craft spirits.

Attempts at homemade reproductions of Amer Picon have largely been unsuccessful. Jamie Boudreau developed one—dubbed "Amer Boudreau"—that was tested and approved by classic cocktail experts. It is noted as the closest recreation of the original formula and even compared to well-guarded bottles that remain in private collections.

Several other substitutes are available, though none comes as close in flavor to Amer Picon as those from Golden Moon or Boudreau. While amer is the French word for "bitter," Italian spirits use amaro.

  • Amer Torani: This is an Amer Picon replica produced in the U.S. It is not a highly recommended substitute though it is decent, easy to find, and commonly used.
  • Amaro CioCiaro: Produced in Italy, this is one of the best substitutes for Amer Picon.
  • Ramazzotti Amaro: A suitable Italian substitute, it is also the base for Boudreau's recipe.
  • Amaro Montenegro: Compared to others, this is a very light amaro. Made in Italy, it lacks the orange component, which is central to Amer Picon. 
  • Amaro Nonino: A grappa-based amaro from Italy, this option has a light profile and a slight hint of bitter orange.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Neutral alcohol, orange peel, gentian root, cinchona, sugar, caramel
  • Proof: 42 
  • ABV: 21%
  • Calories in a shot: 99
  • Origin: France
  • Taste: Bittersweet, orange
  • Serve: On the rocks, cocktails

What Is Amer Picon Made From?

Amer Picon is an apéritif made of a proprietary botanical blend created by Gaétan Picon in 1837. The story is that the French cavalry sergeant fell ill while in Algeria and concocted a medicinal tisane of orange peel, sugar, and quinine. He later mixed it with alcohol, and it was common for French soldiers in North Africa to drink it to fight malaria. Picon went on to open a distillery in Marseille, France, where he produced Amer Picon.

Orange is the dominant flavor, derived from a maceration of fresh and dried orange peel in neutral alcohol, then distilled. A separate maceration of gentian root and cinchona (quinquina or Jesuits' bark; contains quinine) takes place, and the two spirits are blended with sugar and caramel.

The recipe changed many times over the years. According to distiller Stephen Gould, the original blend was halted during the 1880s when "production was moved from North Africa to France." In the 1970s, it was transformed into a weaker form and reduced from 39 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) to 21 percent (42 proof). Drinkers who have tasted both formulas tend to describe the change as a disappointment. Today, Picon produces two styles of the bitter: Bière and Club.

Amer Picon facts
The Spruce / Madelyn Goodnight

What Does Amer Picon Taste Like?

This dark amber amer lives up to its style, and it is indeed bitter, but a bright bittersweet orange flavor balances that. The bitterness is also offset by an underlying sweetness and a dry quinine finish.

Types

When Diageo purchased the Picon brand, more bitters were released. While all are very similar, Bière and Club are far more common and formulated with different mixers in mind.

  • Black Label: The closest to the original Amer Picon, this is the 21 percent ABV (42 proof) version. It's more of a nostalgic bottle that's extremely difficult to locate with a primarily black label and simply reads "Picon Amer."
  • Bière: This bottle is distinguished by its red label and "Bière" in the gold band under the name Picon. It's bottled at 18 percent ABV (36 proof) and designed to be mixed with a pilsner or wheat beer for a shandy-like drink. However, it's nothing like the lemonade shandy that's so familiar today.
  • Club: Also a 36-proof version, this one has a predominately white label with "Club" in the gold band. It was made to be mixed with white or sparkling wine, tonic, or seltzer.

Where to Buy Amer Picon

Amer Picon is not available for sale in the United States or North America. Nor will you be able to find it in much of the world outside of Europe. Tales abound of people using their travels to acquire the elusive apéritif. It is found in many parts of Europe, particularly in France where it is produced, and some mention picking it up in Tokyo.

Shopping for Amer Picon online is also a daunting task, and very few websites have it available. Additionally, the restrictions on shipping alcohol fluctuate and vary considerably throughout the world. If you find it at an online shop, inquire personally before purchasing to ensure it's available and legal to ship to you.

How to Drink Amer Picon

As an apéritif, Amer Picon can aid digestion when drunk before a meal. It's most common to serve it over ice when enjoyed on its own to mellow the complex flavor. It's also brilliant in mixed drinks and cocktails. The simplicity of topping it with beer, white or sparkling wine, tonic water, or seltzer transforms it into a refreshing drink. The Picon punch is a popular cocktail recipe in France (it's also surprisingly famous among bartenders in Nevada), and some people enjoy Picon with lemon syrup and seltzer. Other classic cocktails that call for this bitter are equally sophisticated and straightforward, allowing the bitter to shine.

Cocktail Recipes

Due to its lack of availability, many recipes that called for Amer Picon have since been revised for a substitute. A few hold strong and remain favorites for the elusive liqueur:

  • Liberal Cocktail : The recipe uses an amaro, the most popular of which are Picon and Amer Torani.
  • Picon Punch: Make this by combining 1 1/2 ounces Amer Picon and 1/4 ounce of grenadine in an ice-filled glass, then top it with a seltzer. Some recipes use a lemon peel garnish, while others prefer an orange slice. A brandy float is optional too.
  • Brooklyn Cocktail: For this one, mix 2 ounces rye whiskey, 1 ounce dry vermouth, and 1/4 ounce each of maraschino liqueur and Amer Picon. Stir the ingredients with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.