On May 10th, 2022, Gruppo Campari (aka The Campari Group) acquired Picon Aperitif from Diageo for 119 million Euros (or about 125.5 million US Dollars). This headline caught my eye for a panoply of reasons, including the fact that I still have yet to try this aperitif on its own – that is, I’ve only had it once or twice, and only in the cocktail format.
It’s one of those spirits where I keep reminding myself to pick up a bottle next time I see it on the shelf. But it’s not one of the most popular or common ingredients here on the East Coast, so it’s constantly falling off and then re-emerging on my radar. Makes me wonder if anyone out there listening is in the same boat when it comes to this or any other spirit or mixer.
At first glance, this acquisition of Picon Aperitif struck me as a bit of a non-news item. In terms of prestige or market power, it felt like trading a pawn for a pawn. It’s not like Campari sold Skyy Vodka, or Diageo sold Tanqueray. Diageo simply handed over a minor member of its overall portfolio to one of their competitors in exchange for cash. It’s like when you hear about a sports team trading cash considerations and draft picks. Is it meaningful? Sure. Otherwise it wouldn’t happen. But it’s just hard to get excited about when you’re watching from the sidelines.
The more I thought about this deal, though, the more it seemed like a great way to introduce our listeners to the way that the vast majority of spirits and cocktail ingredients are traded on the global market. But before we go deeper into the inner workings of international corporations with multi-billion dollar valuations, let’s first explore the history of PIcon Aperitif to understand how we arrived at this exact inflection point in the global drinks market.
The History of Picon Aperitif (AKA Amer Picon)
Picon Apertif was invented in the late 1830s by a Frenchman named Gaétan Picon, who resided in the south of France, but was stationed in Algeria as a member of the French Military. While deployed, he found himself in a hotbed of the Mediterranean spice and herb trade and was also confronted with the imperial reality of insect-borne illnesses. Like the British and the Dutch in the far east, Picon and his comrades regularly consumed quinine in the form of Cinchona bark to stave off malaria. And, just like the invention of so many other beverages that would find their way into fancy bottles and cocktail bars in polite society, Picon Aperitif began its life as medicine in service of a colonial military agenda.
After pairing his medicine – equal parts Cinchona and Gentian – with a macerated and distilled base of dried orange peel, and sweetening the brew with caramel sugar, it was bottled at 39% ABV and called “Amer PIcon,” (“Amer” being the French cognate for the bitter signifier “Amaro”). Picon went on to open distilling operations for this beverage in the North African regions of Constantine, Bône and Algiers before creating a domestic distillery to produce the product in Marseille in 1872.
In terms of its flavors and rise to popularity, Amer PIcon represents a really fascinating bridge between orange liqueurs and bitter aperitifs that were both extremely popular during the middle of the 19th century in France. For more on the orange liqueur side of things, listen to part II of our recent History of the Margarita series (in Episode 227) and for more on the bitter aperitif side of things, check out my interview with Jake Parrott of Haus Alpenz (in Episode 153). Without getting too far into the weeds, I think it should be pointed out that once you get a grasp of what happened in the cocktail space in the United States during the Gilded Age, it’s really worth examining what was happening elsewhere in the world to truly understand how global beverage trends evolved.
Amer Picon made its way overseas in the late 1800s and early 1900s, finding its way to the West Coast thanks to the discerning palates of Basque immigrants, who would have doubtless been exposed to the product on their home soil and then sought it out as a familiar taste when they emigrated to the US.
Featured Cocktail: PIcon Punch
This brings us to our featured cocktail for this episode, Picon Punch.To make it in its most authentic form, you’ll need:
- 1.5 oz Amer Picon Substitute (like Torani Amer) – I’ll explain why you need a substitute in a few minutes
- .25 oz Grenadine syrup (like the True Grenadine syrup from Pratt Standard available on ModernBarCart.com.
- 1.5 – 2 oz a high quality sparkling or soda water (like Topo Chico)
- 0.5 oz Cognac
Combine the Picon-style Aperitif and Grenadine in a rocks glass (or small highball glass) with ice, top with a couple ounces of sparkling water or club soda, give a gentle stir to combine, then top with a half ounce float of cognac, garnish optionally (but optimally) with a lemon twist, and enjoy.
The origin story of Picon Punch is heavily debated, but it can be traced back to a hotel in the Bay Area – either the Vasco in San Francisco, or the Noriega in Bakersfield. As I mentioned a second ago, this was a Basque immigrant beverage. This population initially emigrated to the US to seek their fortune in the gold rush several decades earlier, but due to the fickle and brutal nature of mining, many soon fell into the alpine-agrarian lifestyle that mirrored their traditional professions in the Pyrenees, namely: herding and hunting.
So now we know where this beverage came from, but why is it called a Punch? Well, this is probably an artifact of a beverage that had already been popular in San Francisco for several decades by the time Amer Picon arrived: Pisco Punch, a classic, original San Francisco cocktail.
So if you make a cocktail with Pisco, and you call it a Pisco Punch, then if you were to make a cocktail with Amer Picon, why not call it Picon Punch? It’s hard to argue with that line of reasoning.
As the Basque diaspora spread across the Western US, the Picon punch became a favorite libation in many parts of California, Nevada, and Montana, having very noteworthy popularity in places like San Jose, Bakersfield, Elko, and Reno. In fact, there have been attempts to make it the official state libation of Nevada – but none of these attempts have been successful to-date.
At face value, this cocktail is somewhere between an upside-down “New Style” Cognac Daisy and an Aperol Spritz. At its best – which is to say, on ice and with a splash of soda – it’s a refreshing, complex libation with the capacity to charm even the most discerning of palates. But even if you were an early disciple of this format forced to construct it without the benefits of ice or carbonation, it would still make for a passable – if boozy – take on a Scaffa, which is a type of cocktail made at room temperature and with little-to-no dilution. If you’d like to learn more about this little corner of the cocktail universe (the scaffa category), I’d recommend starting with Sother Teague’s book, I’m Just Here for the Drinks, and working your way out from there.
A few decades after the invention of PIcon Punch, Prohibition took effect, followed by The Great Depression and Wold War II. So while it’s possible that American servicemen may have acquired a taste for Amer Picon while expelling the Kaiser from France, they would have had an extremely difficult time sourcing it when they returned home.
This is where a California drink syrup company called Torani enters the picture. You may be familiar with this brand name from the row of pump bottles lining the coffee bar that you stare at while waiting for the barista to wrap up your grande non-fat caramel vanilla mochaccino latte. But, aside from its flavored syrups, Torani does produce a lone alcoholic product: Torani Amer.
Although there’s very little hard evidence pointing to a definitive date, at least one source claims the company began manufacturing this American rendition of Amer Picon in 1925 to address the very market gap I just described. This moment, though initiated by the cold, impartial hand of capitalism, represents a crucial branch in the Picon Aperitif family tree. Because while Torani Amer continued its course here in the US at 39% ABV (or 78 proof), remaining faithful to the product it was designed to replace, the Picon Aperitif formula in France underwent a number of dilutions and reformulations in following decades, dropping to 25% ABV in the 1970s and then even further to 18% in the late 1980s.
This is why I stipulate using a Picon Aperitif “replacement” in our Picon Punch recipe. Because if you walk out of the liquor store today with a bottle of Picon Aperitif, it’s not going to act the same way as the original product, around which the cocktail was designed.
Today, there are two primary “flavors” of Picon Aperitif: Picon Biere and Picon Club, the former designed to be mixed with beer, and the latter for mixing with dry white or sparkling wines. From what scant evidence is available online, it appears that the Club version is a bit more faithful to the original Amer Picon in terms of bitterness, derived from gentian and Cinchona, while the Biere version is a bit milder to accommodate for the presence of bitter hops in beer.
Now, the question remains:
Why did the Campari Group, owners of Campari and Aperol, go out of their way to acquire another red, orange-flavored, bitter aperitif? They’ve already got two. They’re both wildly popular. Why not just focus on those?
Well, I did a little bit more reading, and it turns out that Campari has been very busy in France and its former colonial territories recently. In 2019, it acquired Martinique-based rum producer Rhumantilles, responsible for several popular brands of Rhum Agricole, and in 2020 it acquired French distributor Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
So if we’re looking at what this deal can tell us overall about the plans and corporate strategies of certain booze conglomerates, when placed in context, the acquisition of Picon Aperitif seems to be part of a multi-phase strategy for winning the hearts and minds of the French drinking public. Oh yeah…and also their pocketbooks.
Picon Aperitif could also be a useful arrow in Campari’s quiver as consumer sentiment and other large brands continue to focus on low-ABV drinks. While this has been a trend in France and much of Western Europe for quite some time, it’s a movement that’s still on the rise here in the US, and presenting bartenders and enthusiasts with a new product to use in their next low-ABV session drink might help drive demand for this product stateside.
Overall, I think we’re at a “wait and see” moment with this deal. Obviously, it’s still very young. And obviously, it would be really nice if the Campari Group decided to resurrect a version of the product that’s true to the original formulation. But exactly what the future holds for Picon Aperitif remains to be seen.
Blue Coat Gin Sale
To wrap things up, I wanted to also mention a duo of domestic brand sales that caught my attention recently. And, I thought this was a nice complement to the Amer Picon story because these are domestic deals, rather than international ones, and because it took a bit of piecing together on my end. One stray headline turned into a tangled web of threads I needed to untangle before the whole situation made sense.
My reading process began when I came across an article about Blue Coat Gin being acquired by American spirits conglomerate Heaven HIll. This is the same Heaven Hill whose workers went on strike for several weeks late last year, so I’ll let you do your own research to figure out how you feel about the company in general. But we’re not here to talk about their employee relations, we’re here to talk about their portfolio.
The Google link I clicked on read: “Blue Coat Gin Sold to Heaven Hill,” so imagine my surprise when the article it brought me to was titled, “Kensington’s New Liberty Distillery acquired a Bucks County boozemaker, and the deal could change the craft spirits landscape.”
I’m not a smart man, but I know that Heaven Hill isn’t located in Bucks County, PA. And I also know that New Liberty Distillery doesn’t make Blue Coat Gin. So how is this all tied together?
Well, it turns out that this story is a lot like a set of nesting dolls, and the doll at the center of it all is a distiller and entrepreneur named Robert Cassell.
Back in 2005, Cassell co-founded Philadelphia Distilling, the first distillery to operate in Pennsylvania since Prohibition. He was instrumental in getting Pennsylvania’s liquor laws re-written, which paved the way for over a hundred distilleries that have opened in the state since then. Blue Coat Gin, of course, was one of Philadelphia Distilling’s inaugural products.
11 years later, in 2016, Philadelphia Distilling was sold to a Miami-based ownership group called Samson & Surrey.
So when I read the headline that Blue Coat Gin was sold to Heaven Hill, it’s not saying that Heaven Hill REALLY wanted an East Coast gin brand. That would be a very narrow view of what actually happened. In fact, they acquired Samson & Surrey’s ENTIRE PORTFOLIO, which includes FEW Spirits (out of Evanston IL), Widow Jane Whiskey (based in NY), as well as Mezcal Vago, Tequila Ocho, and Brenne French Whisky.
So that headline saying that Heaven Hill acquired Blue Coat Gin in January of this year would be like you handing me a cake and calling it a bag of flour. It’s not accurate, and what you’re actually giving me is a whole lot more complicated than you’re making it out to be.
By acquiring Samson & Surrey back in January, Heaven Hill greatly diversified its portfolio, which has been anchored by American whiskey brands like Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Larceny, Henry McKenna, and Old Fizgerald, as well as other popular spirits like Deep Eddy Vodka, Rittenhouse Rye, Dubonnet Aperitifs, and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur.
But this is only part of our little game of nesting dolls. In addition to acquisitions that impact sales and distribution of spirits at the National level, this story also involves a regional play that was the TRUE focus of that article I clicked into expecting the focus solely to be on Blue Coat Gin.
Earlier this month, under the leadership of President Robert Cassell, Millstone Spirits Group, owners of Philadelphia-based New Liberty Distillery, announced that they had acquired Faber Distilling, which is the Bucks County, PA operation referred to in the title of the article.
Although I’ve never really interacted with their brand or their products, apparently Faber made their mark in the craft spirits renaissance by purchasing, flavoring, and bottling spirits that they then sold at very reasonable price points. This sort of put them at the low end of what we would consider “craft,” in that they weren’t really doing much actual work, but they also filled a market gap when it came to price.
This acquisition of Faber Distilling landed Robert Cassell and his existing brand a 160,000 square foot manufacturing facility with two high-speed bottling lines, setting them up to become the dominant regional distilling operation in the greater Pennsylvania area.
So really what we have here is a tale of two acquisitions:
Heaven Hill acquires Samson & Surrey, which contains as a member of its portfolio Philadelphia Distilling, and, by extension, Blue Coat Gin.
And Millstone Spirits Group acquires Faber Distilling, which sets them up to scale their existing product lines and manufacturing capabilities.
The common denominator here – as I mentioned earlier, the nesting doll that started this whole game – is Robert Cassell. Without him, there would be no Blue Coat Gin, and all of the other details of this series of transactions would remain in an alternate universe of unrealized possibilities.
I’ve had the chance to judge gin next to Rob, and I can confirm that he has a remarkable palate, including the very rare ability to trace flavors in the glass back to process-based flaws or decisions. But even if I hadn’t had the chance to share a judging table with him, my main takeaway from this bifurcated story of acquisitions at the national and regional level would be that I need to pay more attention to this person, Robert Cassel. I need to learn about the work he’s done, and I need to pay attention to the work he continues to do because he seems to be the central node that a lot of these large-scale deals all tie back to in the end.
I know that my news consumption diet is probably very different than yours. It likely involves a different set of sources and media, and it probably has a very distinct selection bias for news pertaining to the beverage world.
The purpose of the two case studies I just presented is to give you a couple different ways to take a story about a brand or a product being sold from one major company to another and mine that story for details that will tell you a more detailed and interesting story. As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to read a headline about a brand or product acquisition and think of it like two sports teams trading players. But if you’re really interested in what’s going on behind the scenes, in the stories behind the stories, then you should start sniffing around these news items like a dog sniffs around a set of animal tracks.
One of my favorite quotes is from American humorist James Thurber (who wrote the original story called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). He said:
“Everyone should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”
That’s what the dog sniffing around the tracks is trying to figure out: where did this thing come from, and where is it going?
If you add the human element to this metaphor and insert the element of intent by asking that last crucial question, “why,” then I think you’re just as well equipped as I am to walk up to a news item about a spirit or a brand, look at everything that’s being said and everything that’s being omitted, and generate a crisp, well-informed take on what it means for you as a consumer and as a spirits and cocktail enthusiast.