Amer Picon. Just saying the words send shivers up a bartender’s spine. This French bitters with a distinct orange flavor is nearly impossible to get in the States. That is, unless you enlist a French-traveling friend and pray that they don’t drink it all before crossing back over the Atlantic. It’s that fun. Like notches in a belt, many earn their stripes by being able to get their hands on it for a drop or two. The alternative is to study, taste to hone in on the flavor profile, and try to replicate it as close as possible. The Bitter Bar of Boulder has done just that, and bar manager Michael Cerretani has found a way to condense the six-week process of making Amer Picon into a single hour.
At 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, Eater found Cerretani hovered over a sous vide machine, with a bag of valencia orange peels lazing in a vodka bath. Not an atypical morning for Cerretani by any means, eager to batch his version of Amer Picon. A few years back, The Bitter Bar crafted a version of Amer Picon for its infamous cocktail, The Brooklyn. And when Cerretani returned from the Woodfood Reserve & Esquire Manhattan Experience Finale this past year, utilizing the bar's Amer Picon, he literally could not keep up with the demand. “After returning from the competition, it was the best selling cocktail and we were going through 1.5 liters a week,” says Cerretani. So he dug in, toyed around with many combinations (sometimes resulting in drunken mornings after tasting through multiple batches) and finally arrived to the results of his finely-tuned product.
Picon’s Amer (French for “bitter”) dates back to the mid-1800s with bittering herbs like quinine, cinchona, and genetian — the exact recipe closely guarded. In the 1970s, Amer Picon was reformulated from 80-proof (39% ABV) to 40-proof (21% ABV). Remaining primarily to the confines of Europe, this spirit is primarily consumed within its boundaries. Torani Amer, Picon Biere, Picon Club, and Cio Ciaro and the most commonly seen substitutions of Amer Picon. But for many, that just isn't enough.
Back in 2007, Jamie Boudreau, owner of the illustrious Canon in Seattle and nominee for this year's "American Bartender of the Year" at Tales of the Cocktail, cloned his rendition of Amer Picon. While Boudreau could not be reached for comment, he talks of his exploration in his blog Spirits and Cocktails to find the appropriate Amaro blend, “Montenegro would be too citrusy, Nonino too sweet, but Ramazzotti, with its orange and chocolate notes, would suit Goldilocks just fine.”
Cerretani’s treatment of the orange peels is the distinctive characteristic of his recipe. By greatly varying the temperature via sous vide, he is able to draw out the oils and flavors of the peel by way of altering the pressure via temperature. “Basically, I’m turning a six-week wait into an hour process,” Cerretani says, alluding to the typical treatment of orange peels to draw out the necessary flavor and oils for Amer Picon. The process of cooking and cooling the peels (in 80 proof vodka) by way of sous vide draws out a bold orange flavor that he adds to his Amer Picon. With his own secret blend of commercial Amaros and bitters, nearly a full bottle of Solerno (Blood Orange Liqueur), and just a little bit of water, Cerretani had finished this week’s batch. The result? A deep, bitter chocolate flavor with a rich orange flavor, full in texture, and perfectly ready to mix.
So belly up to the Bitter Bar and let any of the bartenders make you something with Amer Picon. It is not the typical bottle you see behind many bars. And should anyone have their own bottle, here's a couple of Cerretani's popular cocktails recipes using Amer Picon:
Woodford Dey Manhattan
2 oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
.75 oz Yellow Chartreuse
.25 oz Cocci Vermouth di Torino
.25 oz Amer Picon a la Bitter Bar
1.5 oz Rye or Bourbon
.5 oz Dry Vermouth
.25 oz Amer Picon
.25 oz Maraschino Liqueur
Amer Picon a la Bitter Bar [Photo: Jess Hunter]