Posted by: acooksca | 08/14/2012

San Francisco’s Official Cocktail

Pisco Punch, the official cocktail of San Francisco

Pisco Punch, the official cocktail of San Francisco

San Francisco has always been a hard drinking town and it has an official cocktail. Sip a Pisco Punch and you taste 200 years of history. And don’t let the word “punch” lead you to think this is a wimpy drink. Here is how one writer of the late 1800’s described Pisco Punch: “it tastes like lemonade but comes back with the kick of a roped steer.”

A “punch” in the 1880’s was a sailors drink,…a blend of citrus juice, sugar and rum made to warm the body  and chase away both scurvy and loneliness on long voyages. San Francisco’s Pisco Punch is a blend of a clear and potent grape brandy from Pisco, Peru, pineapples from Hawaii and gum arabic, a thickener brought in for use by confectioners in town.        

Since before this was a state, traders seeking hides and tallow from the vast cattle ranches of Alta California sailed into San Francisco harbor bringing Pisco brandy. In 1853, just 4 years after the first gold strike, a shot of Pisco was the featured drink at the Bank Exchange and Billiard Saloon. In 1893 Duncan Nicol devised Pisco Punch at the Bank Exchange and Billiard Saloon. Writers Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker Magazine) helped establish the drink’s reputation as a San Franciscan concoction that “would make a gnat fight an elephant.”

Nicol closed the saloon in 1919 because of the Prohibition Act. The original recipe is said to have gone to the grave with him, but notes from other people say it contained Pisco brandy, pineapple, sugar, lime, gum arabic and distilled water. Pisco Punch is experiencing a reawakening with The City’s surge in craft cocktail bars. We decided it was time to taste this most San Franciscan of cocktails.

Pisco Punch at the Old Ship Saloon

Up the dark and not-too-inviting Romolo alley, in the heart of the Broadway’s strip club area is a bar called 15 Romolo (est. 1912). The menu of original and unusual cocktails shows a commitment to modern mixology. The bartender was happy to produce a Pisco Punch. Sipped next to the fanciful rum and bourbon drinks that our table ordered the punch was the most refreshing, with a balance of sweet pineapple and tart lime. But it struck us as a little “thin” and we wondered if the gum arabic was included.

We stopped by the Old Ship Saloon (298 Pacific Street at Battery), which some people believe to be the oldest bar in San Francisco. They serve a traditional Pisco Punch, inclusive of the gum arabic. We didn’t think this drink had much more mouth feel than Romolo’s. One night in the Mission we tried the Pisco Punch at the bar of Locanda Osteria (557 Valencia Street). Our bartender used a pineapple-infused gum syrup that gave a bright flavor and a little richer texture. But this still wasn’t the Pisco drink I was hoping for.

A few months back we were in Lima, Peru where the national drink is Pisco Sour. This drink is made by shaking Pisco brandy, fresh lime or lemon juice, sugar and an egg white, which acts as the thickener. Peruvian bartenders also offer menus of Pisco drinks flavored with herbs, berries, other citrus fruits and tropical fruits. My personal favorite was passion fruit and Pisco.

Pisco Sours in Lima

Back in The City last week we met friends for a cocktail at Rose Pistola (532 Columbus Ave). I ordered the Presidio Passion, a blend of Pisco brandy and passion fruit nectar accented by mint and a dash of Campari. It was luscious. The nectar adds both sweet-tartness and a rich texture, the mint refreshes and the Campari keeps the drink from being cloying. It seems that Pisco Punch, like other traditional cocktails, is inspiring some delightful contemporary drinks.

Pisco Punch recipe from
* 1 pineapple(s)
* gum syrup
* 1 pint distilled water
* 10 ounces lemon juice
* 24 ounces Pisco brandy
Glass Type: punch cup
Take a fresh pineapple, cut it in squares about 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches. Put these squares of fresh pineapple in a bowl of gum syrup* to soak overnight. That serves the double purpose of flavoring the gum syrup with the pineapple and soaking the pineapple, both of which are used afterward in the Pisco Punch.
In the morning, mix 8 ounces of the flavored gum syrup, the water, lemon juice, and Pisco in a big bowl.
Serve very cold but be careful not to keep the ice in too long because of dilution. Use 3- or 4-ounce punch glasses. Put one of the above squares of pineapple in each glass. Lemon juice or gum syrup may be added to taste.
For perfect authenticity, we should note, this should be made one drink at a time, as Nicol did:
In a cocktail shaker, combine: 2 ounces Pisco, 1 ounce distilled water (Nicol insisted on this), 2/3 ounce (4 teaspoons) syrup (refrigerated, this’ll keep at least two or three months), 3/4 ounce lemon juice.
Shake well, strain into a thin punch glass and garnish with syrup-soaked pineapple chunk., (You can freeze these, if you want ’em to keep.)
* The secret ingredient here, gum (aka “gomme”) syrup, is a nineteenth-century bar essential consisting of sugar syrup blended with gum arabic (the crystallized sap of the acacia tree) to smooth it out and add body. To make it, slowly stir 1 pound gum arabic into 1 pint distilled water and let soak for a day or two. When this solution is ready, bring 4 pounds sugar and 1 quart distilled water to a boil, add the gum solution, and skim off the foam. Let it cool, filter it through cheesecloth, and bottle it. It should keep, even unrefrigerated. You can find gum arabic powder in some health-food stores and at It’s worth the hassle. Really.
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  1. Sounds fabulous. I love pisco sours. Your drink model is very cute too!

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