Saturday is National Pisco Sour Day, the only holiday dedicated to the Peruvian spirit Pisco. We have a soft spot for Pisco since it got its introduction to the States right across the street at the Montgomery Block Building, which stood from 1853–1959, when it made way for the Transamerica Pyramid (See it, below, a month after the Great Quake of 1906).
The Montgomery Block, at a modest four stories, was arguably SF’s first skyscraper, and housed the offices of people like Mark Twain and Jack London, in addition to the Bank Exchange Bar, where bartender Duncan Nicol (above-left) concocted the Pisco Punch.
The punch contained lime and pineapple, but the original recipe has been shrouded in mystery. We got in touch with Pisco authority and Pisco Latin Lounge co-owner Guillermo Toro-Lira, who wrote two books on the subject, to find out more about the famed tippler.
Where did you try your first pisco or pisco punch?
I tried my first pisco (a Pisco Sour) in my native Lima, Peru when I was around 16 years old. My first Pisco Punch was prepared by myself for Thanksgiving of the year 2000.
What does the name of your book, “Wings of Cherubs” refer to?
The famous English writer Rudyard Kipling visited the Bank Exchange in the 1880s and tried a punch. He mentioned about the secrecy of the recipe and wrote that he thought “it was made of shavings of Cherubs’ Wings.” I borrowed his last part in allusion to uncovering the Pisco Punch recipe.
How did you go about researching your two books on the subject of pisco?
I started researching the historical relations of Peruvians in the history of California by the end of the 1990s. I was surprised on how significant it was and decided to write a book, mainly for Peruvians to know about.
When I discovered the existence of Pisco Punch, I decided to write the book centered on the Pisco Punch aspect but including the general Peruvian part too. This was “Alas de los Querubines” (“Wings of Cherubs”). It won a Gourmand award in 2007. One year later it was published in English. My second book, “History of Pisco in San Francisco,” is more historical and shows the historical evidence used in the research of Wings… It has been publshed only in English.
How did pisco wind up a Gold Rush staple?
When San Francisco was a small village with a couple of hundred of habitants back in the 1830s, Pisco was one of the drinks they were used to. It came from Peru in sailing ships doing business trading hide and tallow from mission Padres and Ranchers. When the Gold Rush started, Pisco was already in SF. Many an East Coaster tried Pisco for the first time in SF, not in Peru, and thus its association with the City.
We hear that a pisco-style brandy was also made from California grapes when true Pisco was unavailable. Is that true? Do any wineries make a pisco-type brandy today?
One “aguardiente de vino” (wine distillate) was made in Sutter Fort in Sacramento in the early 1840s. As such, it could have been considered a “Pisco.” But today nobody in the US can make a wine distillate and call it Pisco by US Law.
Do you know Nichol’s secret Pisco Punch recipe?
I think I do. At [Pisco Latin Lounge] we serve there what we believe is Nicol’s recipe, down to the Pisco Italia type, the gum arabic, distilled water, Hawaiian pineapples, and Mexican limes.
For more information, read Mr. Toro-Lira’s books and articles, available at his website, piscopunch.com. Better yet, stop by Pisco Latin Lounge for some “field reporting.”
Photographs: California Historical Society