Barbary Coast Booze: the Pisco Punch

The discovery of gold in the hills of San Francisco in 1849 inspired one of the biggest population movements in human history. And today’s San Francisco is a fascinating reminder of that, both in terms of its demographic and architectural diversity. One such people that came in droves were Peruvians. And they brought with them a drink that would change cocktails culture forever: pisco. If you have a mouth and hands to pick up a glass and occasionally drink alcohol, you’ve most certainly heard of one pisco-based drink: The pisco sour, which is currently enjoying a revival among cocktail quaffers.

But in mid and late 19th century San Francisco, particularly at one Barbary Coast saloon, a new, rather potent pisco-laced drink was enjoying its own heyday. Pisco Punch. Which is, like interest in the Barbary Coast itself, enjoying a bit of a resurgence in San Francisco.

The invention of the drink is attributed to Duncan Nicol, who combined pisco, pineapple gum, lime juice and distilled water, while he was the owner of the Bank Exchange saloon where the ’70s-flavored skyscraper, the TransAmerica Building, sits today.

The problem, though, was that when Nicol went to the grave, he took the recipe with him.
But according to Jonny Raglin of Comstock Saloon (who makes a mean pisco punch, by the way), someone figured out the recipe during the last decade and in the last five years the drink has been popping up on cocktail bar menus around the city.

“The revival of pisco punch,” Raglin told me, “is really a classic example of the entire resurgence of the Barbary Coast as a whole.”

One other note of historical importance. According to Daniel Bacon, whose book “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail,” is a bible for this stuff, one frequent pisco punch-drinking regular at the Bank Exchange saloon was Mark Twain. One night over glasses of pisco punch he got to talking to a fire fighter and they became friends. That fireman’s name? Tom Sawyer.