Sunday, May 14, 2006

Duncan Nicols "lost" Pisco Punch Recipe

San Francisco in the 19th Century

I found in the California Historical Society Journal the story of Pisco Punch. It included what purports to be the "lost" recipe. But before I give that, a word about Pisco Brandy.

Bank Exchange Saloon. Nicols far left. Pisco at lower left?
It is distilled from the Muscat grape, grown in Peru on volcanic soil. It was the first distilled product in the new world, traded commercially. The bottles, actually stone crockery, were sealed with hot beeswax on the inside to prevent evaporation. This beeswax sealer is what mellowed the brandy to a point whereby the drinker could not "taste" the alcohol. And William Heath Davis, writing in an early San Francisco work about Pisco 'brandy' said:

In 1839, early in the year, the brig " Daniel O'Connell," an English vessel, arrived at Yerba Buena from Payta,[now spelled Paita] Peru, with a cargo of Peruvian and other foreign goods, having on board a considerable quantity of pisco or italia, a fine delicate liquor manufactured at a place called Pisco. Chapter xxxi, page 249 et. seq. from: Sixty Years in Californa ... By William Heath Davis (San Francisco : Leary, 1889)

The Bank Exchange Saloon (south-east corner of Montgomery and California Streets, San Francisco California, USA) was the place of it's invention. No customer could purchase more than 2 drinks at a sitting and those wishing more had to leave the bar, walk around the block (or some such diversion) and re-enter in order to qualify as a new customer. The Bank Exchange had been opened by Amadeo Peter Giannini. When the Giannini Bank moved to new quarters, the former premises became the Bank Exchange Saloon and remained that until 1919 -- Prohibition closed it's shuttered doors, forever.


Pisco Punch
This Is San Francisco
by Robert O'Brien (New York : Whittlesey House, 1948) page 39:
Cecil Hotel

To one impressed reporter of the day, the invention of the Pisco Punch did more to advance civilization than the driving of the Golden Spike. 'Step,' he wrote, 'into the foyer of the Hotel Cecil in London and inquire in a loud voice the location of Pisco John's and a from a dozen throats will come the reply: Southeast corner of Montgomery and Washington Streets, San Francisco, America!' 

The author speculated that a certain Peruvian bark was used to flavor the brandy. Given the below description of the "recalls Scotch whisky" flavor the speculation isn't entirely groundless.

After I became a published cookbook author, I started to read a lot more about cooking. In reading George Leonard Herter's Bull Cook and Other Historical Recipes and Practices I came across many recipes that I thought quite excellent. One of them in particular, Pisco Punch, as Herter called it, but it is also widely known as a Pisco Sour.

The Pisco Punch (I use this in preference to Sour, due to the literary device), was thought to have originated at the Bank Exchange Saloon.


"The Bank Exchange was famous for the Pisco Punch", created by Duncan Nichol, one of the well-known bartenders of the region... During the 1870's, it was by far the most popular drink in San Francisco, in spite of the fact that each glass was sold for 25 cents, a high price in those days.

The descriptions of San Francisco at this time had plenty of lyrical references related to its flavor and strength, such as "la crème de la crème" of beverages.

The base was Pisco brandy, distilled from the grape known as "Italia" or "La Rosa del Peru", so called after the Peruvian port . . .

With regard to the brandy or aguardiente itself, . . . an expert who tried it in 1872 stated: "It is perfectly colorless, quite fragrant, extremely strong and with a flavor that somehow recalls Scotch whisky, but more delicate and with a marked fruity taste. It comes in earthen jars, broad at the top and tapering down to a point, holding about five gallons each."

I take from the following: Toasts and Forms of Public Address for Those Who Wish to Say the Right Thing in the Right Way, by William Pittenger

"San Francisco boasts of a saloon called the Bank Exchange, where the finest wines and liquors are dispensed at twenty-five cents a glass, with lunches thrown in free. A plain-looking person went in one morning and called for a brandy cocktail, and wanted it strong. Mr. Parker, as is usual with him, was very considerate, and mixed the drink in his best style, setting it down for his customer. After the cocktail had disappeared the man leaned over the bar and said that he had no change about him then, but would have soon, when he would pay for the drink. Parker politely remarked that he should have mentioned the fact before he got the drink; when his customer remarked: "I tried that on yesterday morning with one of your men, but he would not let me have the whiskey, so you could not play that dodge on me again!" This was too good for Parker, and he told the customer he was welcome to his drink, and was entitled to his hat in the bargain, if he wanted it."

My view of drinking in 19th Century America is that the miners and San Franciscans of sophisticated tastes wanted nothing to do with harsh, hard drinks. The miners had to take the entire winter away from their diggings (rivers rise during winter rains), and drinking that left a hangover was unwelcome in any event. Although the cost of a Pisco Punch at 25 cents may seem high priced for the time, I believe it was the going rate over the entire Western United States at that time. Tombstone to Denver, St. Louis to Santa Fe, San Francisco to Amarillo, the cost of a glass of whiskey was 25 cents.

Here is Duncan Nicoll's recipe:

2 fl. ozs. Pisco Brandy
1 pineapple spear
1/2 fl. oz. gum syrup
splash of pineapple syrup

Gum Syrup is gum arabic in simple syrup. Take the spears, marinate them overnight in the syrup. Prepare the punch over some ice and put a spear in each one and add the gum syrup residue to taste.

This drink has no flavor of alcohol what so ever. Fritz Maytag, owner of Anchor Brewing Company in S.F., Cal. has tasted my Pisco Punch and called it "dangerous".

Happy drinking!

Gum Syrup or (French) Sirop de Gomme (Larousse Gastronomique 1961)

100 grams gum acacia (also called: gum arabic, gum senegal)
300 grams granulated sugar (plain table sugar)
340  grams water

Add the gum and water to a pan. Bring to a simmer to well dissolve the gum. Stir frequently. Add the sugar, stirring constantly to prevent scorching and to mix well the gum and sugar. Cover and remove from the heat. Cool. Bottle tightly. Store in the refrigerator.

My way to make real Pisco.
If you want real pisco, you have to get brandy made with the Muscat grape. As you can find imported Peruvian brandy, that's a start. Next go to your hardware or herbalist and buy a piece of beeswax. My way with the wax was to grate it into shavings, and pour the brandy over the wax in a wide mouth jar. I would set it in the summer sun long enough for the beeswax to dissolve. Then pour it back into the brandy bottle it came in. Mere Peruvian brandy, no matter how tasty, can match this.

Here is a picture of the amphora, in miniature, that a distiller of Pisco attaches to each bottle. I've not tried it, but am glad to see that Peru remembers it's unique brandy heritage.

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