Every good drink has a story. Absinthe was the mind-altering elixir of Paris bohemians at the turn of the 20th century. The gin martini helped the post-war office man in the grey flannel suit take the edge off. And The Mai Tai was all Elvis in Blue Hawaii. But few alcoholic concoctions have a narrative as colorful as the Pisco Punch, the official drink of boozy, brothel-studded, Gold Rush San Francisco. Part cocktail, part legend, it’s a piece of pre-Prohibition lore—one now enjoying a resurgence across the Bay Area.
The story starts in South America. In the early 19th century, trading vessels making pit stops in Peru often picked up a load of pisco, the distilled grape brandy that served as the regional hooch, dropping it off at some other point along the Pacific. As a result, San Francisco was lousy with the stuff. And by the late 1800s, enterprising barkeeps had come up with some pretty ingenious ways of presenting this firewater. Foremost among them: Duncan Nicol, the sturdy Scottish proprietor of the legendary Parker’s Bank Exchange Saloon, a high-class joint on Montgomery Street that didn’t tolerate paintings of nudes or clients who’d consumed more than two drinks.
The Bank Exchange and Duncan Nicol, circa 1893.
It was here, in the waning days of the 19th century, that Nicol popularized a pineapple-pisco cocktail that he dubbed the “Pisco Punch.” Unfortunately, the drink’s exact ingredients and proportions remain something of a mystery; Nicol was so protective of his formula he often made the drink out of sight. It definitely contained pisco and pineapple in some form, either as a juice or syrup. But its other ingredients are pure guess work. Over the decades, the drink has reportedly been laced with powdered sugar, grenadine, grape juice, frozen limeade, Curaçao, honey, egg whites, Herbsaint, bitters, nutmeg, Absinthe, and cocaine (the plant alkaloid, not the mountain of processed powder inhaled by Tony Montana). Whatever it was, the result was a demure sweet-tart mix of fruit gussying up pisco’s gruff barroom wallop. As one writer of the era noted: “It was like lemonade, but came back with the kick of a roped steer.”
A rival bar hired a chemist to try to divine the formula
For a glorious moment, the cocktail defined San Francisco. The Bank Exchange was often the first stop for many visitors to the city. A rival bar hired a chemist to try to divine the formula. And the drink inspired an avalanche of purple prose. The Los Angeles Times described it as “a febrifuge of rare and mystical ingredients.” And Rudyard Kipling theorized it was made “of the shavings of cherubs’ wings, the glory of the tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset.”
The phenomenon, however, was short-lived. Prohibition, starting in 1920, put an end to the Bank Exchange. Six years later, Nicol died—and, according to his obituaries, took his recipe to the grave. But the current hipster craze for all things pre-Prohibition—from twirly mustaches to pickled everything—has resuscitated the drink in San Francisco. The modern-day version consists principally of pisco, lime juice, and pineapple gum arabic, the latter of which gives the cocktail its body. But since the original recipe remains a mystery, there’s plenty of room for improvisation—which means every bar prepares it just a little differently.
Here are five of the best:
James Schenk, the Peruvian-American owner of this pan-Latin spot, says that to understand the cocktail’s original allure, drinkers need to imagine how extraordinary it must have seemed in the late 19th century. “Back in those days, you couldn’t just go to the supermarket to buy a pineapple,” he says. “It was an incredibly exotic fruit.” At the Lounge, it’s definitely the pineapple that steals the day. Fresh pieces are soaked in Barsol pisco for a week and each drink is topped with a heavily macerated cube on a bamboo spear. When eaten on an empty stomach, it provides a delirious rush of sugar and alcohol. Eat two and you’ll know what Kipling meant when he babbled about cherubs’ wings.
Incidentally, this is a place that takes its history quite seriously. Self-described “cocktail historian” Guillermo Toro-Lira is an investor and the bar maintains a scrapbook filled with copies of century-old clippings. There is also a pisco shrine at the rear, featuring vintage photographs and rare examples of bottled Pisco Punch. Don’t leave without having a look.