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Reviving a legendary cocktail – the Pisco Punch

by Brent Support 2 min read

The golden punch of the golden gate city

Perhaps no city’s cocktail history is as closely associated with one drink as San Francisco’s is with Pisco Punch:

Pisco Punch

2 oz. pisco

2/3 oz. pineapple gum syrup

3/4 oz. lemon juice

Shake with ice and double strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.

The current cocktail renaissance has given new life to bar scenes in cities across the world. Cities like New Orleans and New York City are again fully embracing their respective signature cocktails, the Sazerac and Manhattan, while in San Francisco, where Pisco Punch was once lavishly praised by world travelers like Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, the Pisco Punch has had a harder time reclaiming its status as a true household name among cocktail fans.

During the California Gold Rush in the early-mid 19th century, San Francisco was a wide-open frontier town home to a variety of people, all hoping to strike it rich. The city's port allowed new goods to be introduced to the area from other countries, including a clear grape brandy from Peru and Chile called pisco.

Named after the town in Peru in which it was first distilled, pisco became widely available in San Francisco because it was actually easier to obtain via boat from South America than whiskey was by wagon from the Eastern United States.

Several bars and saloons in the area began serving pisco, among them a venerable establishment called the Bank Exchange Saloon. The last owner of the bar, an Irish immigrant named Duncan Nicol, developed the Pisco Punch recipe most associated with San Francisco today. The potent cocktail called for pisco, lemon juice, distilled water, and pineapple gum syrup. The cocktail was so potent that Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine, wrote that it:

"used to taste like lemonade but had a kick like vodka, or worse."

The drink was extremely popular, and the recipe was closely held by Nicol until the Volstead Act and his death shortly thereafter. Between Prohibition and the death of Nicol, Pisco Punch faded into obscurity as quickly as it had sky-rocketed to prominence. The recipe that he took to the grave included the famed pineapple gum syrup, which was difficult to re-create and hard to come by commercially. These factors combined to bury Pisco Punch in history, only to re-emerge decades later when the California Historical Society unearthed the prized Duncan Nicol recipe in 1973.

Thus began Pisco Punch’s long journey back to prominence in American cocktail discourse. Today, premium brands such as Pisco Porton are making inroads into the U.S. market, igniting again the pisco fever that swept the Bay area during the Gold Rush.

With elite bars sprouting up in cities across the country, and premium bar ingredients becoming increasingly available to the home consumer, Pisco Punch is ripe to reclaim its place as a true staple cocktail in America. 

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