Refreshing Summertime Drinks for Peruvian Independence Day
By Guillermo L. Toro-Lira
San Francisco has always been a city that perseveres. Burned to the ground three times in six months in 1850, it continued to rise again from its ashes like the mythological phoenix, forever cast in the official seal of the City.
Now, after being obliterated 90 years ago by the infamous Prohibition Act of 1919, another phoenix is flying again. This bird is pisco, a grape brandy that was the base of a punch that had its own mythological characteristics in the early 1900s. Pisco Punch is San Francisco’s first known mixed cocktail created in the late 1800s and the older sibling to the popular Pisco Sour. With Peruvian Independence Day on July 28, what better way to celebrate than with a piece of cocktail history linking the ports of San Francisco and Peru?
Pisco’s aroma first arrived to California during the wars of independence of the Spanish colonies of the Americas when European merchants ––ignoring the centuries-old Spanish commercial restrictions–– started loading their sailing ships with the fine Peruvian brandy and took it all over the Pacific.
In 1853, when San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon opened its doors ––where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands–– “Italia grape” pisco was the most expensive liquor of the City. Duncan Nicol invented Pisco Punch when he took over the bar at the end of that century using Italia pisco, pineapple, lime juice, and a syrup made with gum arabic. It had such potency that one reporter wrote “it was like lemonade but came back with the kick of a roped steer.” Others said that it “floated them in the region of bliss of hashish and absinthe.”
During the early 1900s, Pisco Punch was so identified with San Francisco that one writer said it was as mandatory for a visitor to taste it, as it was to watch a sunset through the Golden Gate. Its fame crossed oceans, being touted in New York, London, and eventually back to Peru. In 1916, Victor Vaughen Morris, an American expatriate from Utah, opened Morris’ Bar in downtown Lima targeting the English speaking community of tough copper miners who told him of their appreciation of Pisco Punch.
However, Morris had a problem, Duncan Nicol kept his punch recipe a secret. No other soul knew what was in it. So he came up with his own cocktail invention, the Pisco Sour, a combination of regular pisco, lime juice, sugar and egg white, similar to the Silver Fizz of the day, but without the soda water. Morris’ Pisco Sour developed a world-fame of its own with “frequent fliers” and connoisseurs of the day. His cocktail libation proved so successful that today Pisco Sour is Peru’s National Drink, having even a holiday named in its honor –– the first Saturday of February during the middle of summer there.
In 1927, John Lannes, Duncan Nicol’s principal bartender at the Bank Exchange, visited Lima and had drinks with Morris. One can only guess as to the conversation between these two bar masters; but certainly it included cocktail mixology techniques, the impact of Prohibition on San Francisco’s social scene and the recent passing of Duncan Nicol.
Luckily, Prohibition is in the past and for the benefit of all cocktail lovers, Pisco Punch is flying again in San Francisco with the original recipe recently rediscovered by the author. It is served in several bars of the City and in one of them, Pisco Latin Lounge, it is prepared with the traditional recipe. Modern versions of Pisco Punch have appeared using exotic ingredients ranging from ginger and grapefruit to angostura bitters and can be found at downtown watering holes including Heaven’s Dog, Clock Bar, Cantina and Farallon while Pisco Sours are available at neighborhood favorites Rye, Alembic, Nopa and Elixir, as well as the aforementioned Pisco Latin Lounge.
So lets us all toast to Peru’s Independence Day and the resurrection of Pisco!