Student documentarians at the Reynolds School of Journalism journeyed across the “big empty” of Nevada to historic Basque establishments in search of the best, quintessential cocktail of the Great Basin: the Picon Punch. Their film “Piconland: The Quest for the Perfect Picon Punch” took home the award for Best Nevada Film at the 2023 Dam Short Film Festival in February.
“Piconland” premiered in December 2021 alongside other student films from the Reynolds School’s Documentary Film Festival at the school’s Documentary Film Festival, where it won the “Best Documentary” award. The film was written and directed by Mark Maynard, with cinematography by Richard Bednarski, and support from Autumn King, Sarah Schuon and Makayla Hardy.
The film takes viewers to a number of historic Basque hotels and watering holes that were once frequented by the nomadic sheepherders who made the Picon Punch popular. “Piconland” not only explores the origins of what some consider to be Nevada’s unofficial state drink, but reveals it’s more than just a cocktail.
“My dad and I would stop at every Basque boarding house that we could on our travels. The generous meals, the crowd piling into the dining room when the dinner bell rang, and the boisterous scrum at the bar over Picons became something uniquely tied to Nevada for me,” said Director Mark Maynard. “I wanted to tell a bit of that story to people unfamiliar with it, and to celebrate it with those who grew up with it.”
As the California gold rush brought Basque sheepherders to the western United States as early as the 1940s, Basque-owned hotels began to pop up from San Francisco to Idaho to central California.
“What's most interesting to me is that the Picon Punch is part of the Western American Basque diaspora,” Maynard said. “From what we hear, it's not a drink that you can find in the Basque country. It was created here, most likely in San Francisco, and the culture is both Basque and Nevadan.”
During production, the filmmakers traveled across the state to uncover the history of the Picon Punch in places like The Star Hotel in Elko, The Martin in Winnemucca, and Reno’s last proper Basque establishment, Louis’ Basque Corner. Although each bar has their own spin on the cocktail, the team was pleased to find that patrons were more concerned with conversing with others and partaking in a ritual of western Basque culture, than what was in their glass.
Cinematographer Richard Bednarski explained, “’Piconland’ is a seat at a bar where you can amicably talk to anyone, strangers included, about anything and walk away as friends. It is the start of a community that I think embodies Nevada.”
Maynard and Bednarski are considering creating a longer, feature-length version of “Piconland” to be shown at Basque festivals and community events in the future. In the meantime, viewers can follow along for news about upcoming showings or film festival appearances on Instagram.
Learn more about the documentary filmmaking and media production program on the Reynolds School of Journalism website.