History and Context
It was invented in 1887 in San Francisco at the site where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands, it was famous across America in its day, if not the world. A tart drink made with pineapple and Peruvian brandy, there was something very unique about it that left a lasting impression. The recipe was lost in 1929, and rediscovered in 2007, tonight we serve the most famous Barbary Coast drink of them all.
Duncan Nicols behind the bar at the Bank Exchange
Rudyard Kipling said it was:
“compounded of the shavings of cherub’s wings,
the glory of a tropical dawn,
the red clouds of sunset
and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters.”
The roots of tonight’s drink lie deep in San Francisco’s past. The discovery of gold on January 24, 1848 brought about 300,000 people to California, about half by sea. Part of San Francisco transformed overnight into a collection of bars, brothels, and gambling dens known as “The Barbary Coast” where miners could drink and spend - creating a ready market for alcohol in all forms. Ships from the east coast would sail around Cape Horn, then north along the coasts of Chile and Peru up to ‘Alta California.’ Stopping for provisions, the ships would also pick up goods for sale in San Francisco, including famous Peruvian brandy – Pisco.
In addition to bringing Pisco from Peru, the northbound ships brought many Peruvians to California – both miners and settlers – who brought their foods, recipes and culture. Two Peruvian drink recipes are of interest to us: a drink called ‘las once’ – Pisco, lime, sugar, and water; and “chicha de piña” – a mild fermented drink made from pineapple rinds. [Pineapples originated in South America and are grown in Peru]
All of this came together at the Bank Exchange and Billiard Saloon. Founded in 1853 at the corner of Montgomery and Washington, it was one of San Francisco’s most luxurious bars. From 1887 to 1919 it was owned and run by Duncan Nichols, and it was famous through out the Western world, and Pisco Punch was the house drink.
All in all, Pisco Punch is a very pleasant drink, but what about it induced the rhapsodies from Kipling and others: “one glass of punch will make a gnat fight an elephant” and “floating the drinker in the region of bliss of hasheesh and absinthe”.
Duncan Nicols was emphatic about a ‘one drink per customer’ policy when it came to the Pisco Punch – however a six ounce glass would only contain about one shot of alcohol. He was absolutely paranoid about the recipe – he never told the recipe to any of his bar staff, or even his wife. In the last years of his life he told his associates that a key ingredient was no longer available, and upon his death it was widely assumed the recipe was lost forever.
Researcher Guillermo Toro-Lira makes a strong case for the identity of that missing ingredient. May we recommend that you read his book "wings of cherubs" and find out his theories?
It is likely we will never know for sure what the missing secret ingredient in the Pisco Punch was, but we can enjoy both its taste and its history.
The drink is a mild 'sweet / tart ' drink - like a margarita or daiquiri. Pisco has a distinctive character that is clearly tasted through the pineapple. This punch is very easy to drink, but otherwise not that remarkable.
I have to confess that I didn't taste, or notice, the gum arabic - which is supposed to add a silky mouth feel. I did notice, however it really does slow down the absorption of alcohol - I felt very little effect of the 4 or 5 cups of punch during the first two hours - we threw the party at our house, so I knew I didn't have to drive. We had 5 oz punch cups, and we told people at the party "maximum of two drinks per customer." It would be very easy to drink a pint or more of this, and then be disastrously intoxicated three or four (?) hours later.
As far as I know, the Guillermo Toro-Lira recipe isn't published online, so I'm not going to disclose it.
Pisco [Peruvian Brandy]
*Gum Arabic is the dried sap of the Acacia tree, it has been used for centuries in foods and drinks. It is the ingredient that makes ‘gummy bears’ and jelly beans soft and chewy. “Gomme Syrup” or “Gum Syrup” is another recently rediscovered / reintroduced “lost” ingredient from classic cocktails.
The recipe provided in the book is somewhat complex - it involves 6 bottles of ingredients - one is a bottle of pisco, the 5 others are made of the pineapple, chicha de piña, and syrups. I think the recipe in the book makes enough for a couple of gallons of punch. I'd suggest that you work out all your proportions and ingredients well in advance - you must make the recipe at least 30 or so hours in advance - I'd suggest that you make your gomme syrup two plus days ahead, and mix that with the simple syrup the next day - ie one day ahead. I did not observe any signs of fermentation in the Chicha de piña at all, I'm not sure if I should have allowed it another day or added some source of yeast - like some whole grapes - which I could have removed a couple of hours later.
I mixed the complete punch and put it in a pitcher, so that during the party I would pour 2 oz of the punch into each of a dozen punch cups, then add 3 or 4 ice cubes - so it was very easy and I was able to spend time at the party entertaining two very beautiful women.