If you’re a cocktail drinker, you’ve no doubt tasted a few Pisco Sours in your time. It’s that pale, frothy drink made with pisco -- a highly potent Peruvian brandy. The Pisco Sour was invented in Peru, with the first printed recipe appearing in the 1940s. But many, many years before that, 19th century San Francisco was gripped by a craze for another pisco concoction. They called it the “Pisco Punch” -- and by all accounts, this singular beverage should have come with a health warning.
Era of Excess
You won’t see Pisco Punches on many menus in 2019. Only a handful of places in San Francisco -- like North Beach’s Comstock Saloon -- serve these gold-colored, citrusy concoctions anymore.
Yet in the late 1800s, Pisco Punch wasn’t just a drink. Ordering a glass was a status symbol -- and it said everything about the newfound wealth and ambition of Gold Rush San Francisco.
Prospectors streamed into the city with money to burn and tastes to be satisfied. In prodigiously prosperous early San Francisco, those buyers found a mixology culture that wouldn’t be out of place today, says cocktail historian Duggan McDonnell.
“It was a port city, and it had access to so many amazing, wonderful ingredients,” McDonnell points out. “And when you have wealth, what do you spend it on, but amazing things to put on your body and in your mouth?”
Every scene needs its headquarters, and in 1880s San Francisco, that place was a bar called the Bank Exchange and Billiard Saloon -- just steps from where the Comstock Saloon does business today. Here, on the site where the Transamerica Pyramid now stretches into the San Francisco sky, the Pisco Punch was born.
The Bank Exchange may have been a saloon -- but with its marble bar and ornate chandeliers, it was no dive. “It opened up in 1853 frankly as a testament to the West -- that the West was going to make it,” says McDonnell.
The huge building that housed the Bank Exchange was called the Montgomery Block -- a sprawling hub of movers and shakers. Artists and writers, including Jack London and Ambrose Bierce, lived and worked above the saloon. Even Mark Twain was a regular, and was said to have drunk Pisco Punches there with the local man who inspired the character of Tom Sawyer.
Behind that marble bar was the Bank’s very own celebrity bartender: a Scotsman named Duncan Nichol (also spelled elsewhere as "Nicol.") He was the tastemaker serving Pisco Punch to San Francisco’s well-to-do -- for an eye-watering price. In today’s money, estimates McDonnell, a single order of Pisco Punch would set you back a cool $25.
Today, CEOs battle over technology patents. In 1887, Duncan Nichol’s big triumph -- the move that secured his fame, and his legacy -- was acquiring the intellectual property rights to the Bank’s Pisco Punch recipe when he bought the bar, promoting himself from bartender to owner. This drink was simply that big of a deal in San Francisco.
If you’re wondering what on earth could be so special about a single cocktail, take a look at what was actually in it.
Anatomy of an 'It' Drink
There was, of course, the pisco itself. Pisco is a distilled, fermented grape juice from Peru with extreme potency. So potent, says Peru-born pisco expert Nico Vera, that “one bottle of pisco is the equivalent of about 10 bottles of wine.”
Pisco was born, says Vera, when Peruvian vintners working with the grapes brought over by the Spanish 400 years earlier found their wine banned by the King of Spain -- for competing a little too much with their European equivalents. Peru’s winemakers, he says, “had to embrace distillation as an alternative.”
Peruvian traders had long been bringing pisco up to the San Francisco Bay (then part of Mexico). With the discovery of gold in this region, more and more Peruvians made the journey to leverage their expertise in mining, and brought even more of their national brandy with them.
Once San Francisco got a taste for pisco, the city was wild for it, says Vera, comparing the vogue for pisco to the gin craze that swept 18th century London. “It's 38 to 48 percent alcohol by volume, and is very clean when it is single distillation and nothing gets added. So in theory, you don't get a hangover,” he says.
Or as historian McDonnell puts it, “That kind of pisco is more concentrated than anything else on this planet. I mean, it gets into your bones.”
Another key ingredient? Pineapple. These fruits arrived into San Francisco on many of the same ships that brought the pisco, becoming another luxury item for a luxury-obsessed town.
As McDonnell puts it knowingly: “Only in the richest city in the world would you then take that sweet magical fruit and put it in a cocktail, for God's sake.” He also says that San Francisco store owners would take whole pineapples straight from the docks and place them in their windows -- the tradition that turned the pineapple into “the international symbol of hospitality and luxury.”
The Mixologist’s Mystery
Along with some lime and syrup, the Bank’s Pisco Punch also boasted a mystery ingredient that Duncan Nichol would never divulge. Along with the pisco, this secret made the cocktail so mythically strong that the Saloon apparently only allowed two per customer.
“No man but one knows what is in it,” wrote author Rudyard Kipling in "From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel" -- just one of Pisco Punch’s literary fans. “I have a theory it is compounded of the shavings of cherubs’ wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and fragments of lost epics by dead masters.”
Another (anonymous) contemporary wrote, with a shot more brevity, that “it makes a gnat fight an elephant.”
That mystery ingredient itself, says Duggan McDonnell, might explain why writers were so effusive in their love for it. That special something, he believes, might have been Vin Marani: a fortified wine from Bordeaux. The principal ingredient in that, until it got banned, was coca leaves from Peru. In essence: cocaine.
In “19th century California, specifically San Francisco writing,” says McDonnell, “you look at Twain and Kipling and all these guys and there's a lot... of energy in their prose? A lot of hyperbole, shall we say? So I'm not surprised that these guys had a few Pisco Punches with their coca leaves in them.”
Like so many bar owners, Duncan Nichol was forced to closed his Bank Exchange Saloon -- and not long after, he took his mystery Pisco Punch recipe to the grave.
San Francisco’s hottest cocktail became a forgotten legend until decades later, when in 1973 a version of the Bank’s original recipe was unearthed by the California Historical Society and published. Places like the Comstock Saloon began bringing it back -- with a spot of guesswork around that secret ingredient.
Here, just down the street from where the Bank once stood, the Comstock is still serving up several Pisco Punches a night. Yet like Duncan Nichol over a century ago, they still can’t resist a little mystery.
Shaking up his Pisco Punch, Comstock bartender Anthony Cozeck says their version also features a “a secret proprietary ingredient” -- that they keep in a bottle labeled "Nichol." “You can tell me which you think it is,” Cozeck says. “But I won't tell you if you got it right.”
If you hear a challenge here, you’re right. Just ... go easy.