A Brief Introduction to the Basque Houses of the American West
Picon Punch in Nevada
Anna Lekumberry pours barely a drop of grenadine over ice in a small highball glass. Her dad and aunt own the place. The high ceiling is covered entirely in dollar bills. On the walls, there are mostly old cowboy hats signed with Basque last names—some from people who died decades ago, some from people still grazing cattle and raising sheep in this corner of northern Nevada.
The JT Basque bar and restaurant is on the edge of the high desert, at the base of the usually snowcapped Sierra Nevada. Lekumberry pulls the next ingredient from behind the bar—an aperitif called Torani Amer—and explains (as most bartenders making a Picon Punch might) that this isn’t the real stuff. You can’t get the main ingredient, Amer Picon, in the U.S. anymore.
The replacement for the bitter, citrusy, French liqueur is made by a syrup company in San Francisco, and it takes up about half of the small glass. Though it’s a substitute, Torani Amer has been adopted by most Basque-American bars since the 80s or 90s or 50s, depending on who you ask.
The Picon Punch is not a measured cocktail. In whichever Basque house or bar you pick in the Great Basin (or parts of Northern California) the drink will taste different, and since the recipe is passed down by word-of-mouth, it tends to take on the personality of the bar in which it’s made.
They say the Picon in Winnemucca is friendlier and smoother. One in Reno might be simultaneously rough and a little flashy. The Picon here in Gardnerville swaps the traditional stemmed glass for a short highball glass, which either means it’s more down-to-earth, or that it’s a couple inches closer to falling asleep on the bar.
Basque houses are a staple of the high desert, and since the early 20th century have been hotels, restaurants, bars, and community centers for both immigrants from the Basque country and for their descendants, whose culture is entirely woven into the West. Striking up a conversation in one Basque house, it’s not rare to find someone who has tried a Picon in every other Basque house in Nevada.
After the Amer, Anna adds a squirt of club soda. The Star in Elko, NV, on the eastern side of the state, is famous for skipping the club soda. That makes for a harsher, more bitter drink, says Marie Lekumberry, co-owner of the JT and Anna’s aunt. “When you think of Elko, you’re a little more isolated out there, it’s a little tougher.”
After a stir, Anna adds a float of brandy. From the lacquered bar wood up through the grenadine, Amer and brandy, there’s a rich gradient of browns. Right before sliding it across, she adds a touch of yellow in the form of a lemon twist.
Despite the variations across the Great Basin, there’s an atmosphere that ties them all together. The high desert is harsh and bitter, burning and sweet. And looking closely enough, there’s depth and nuance in the shades of brown.