Origins: Pisco Cocktails

The Pisco Punch and Pisco Sour cocktails capture the spirit of the cities they were born in: San Francisco and Lima, respectively. One evokes San Francisco’s ill-reputed Barbary Coast during the Gold Rush era. The other, Lima’s belle epoque during the Roaring Twenties. Connected by pisco, Peru’s national spirit, their histories involve a secret ingredient, a rediscovered recipe, legendary bars, and pioneering barmen.

Pisco’s history begins in the 1500’s, when the Viceroyalty of Peru produced wine rivaling Spain’s. The King of Spain then restricted wine production, forcing vineyards to embrace distillation. This made pisco, a clear and unaged eau de vie or aguardiente, the first grape distillate in the Americas. Named after a town in the Ica Valley, pisco means “little bird” in Quechua, the language of the Incas. Centuries later, pisco traveled to California on a Pacific trade route, forever cementing the bond between Lima and San Francisco.

Pisco Punch

Despite being a pisco cocktail, the Pisco Punch is not from Peru. San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon gave birth to Pisco Punch during the late 1800’s. Gambling, prostitution, jazz clubs, and lawless gangs surrounded the saloon in the heart of the Barbary Coast. Though Scotsman Duncan Nicol inherited the original recipe when he purchased the saloon, he prepared the cocktail out of sight from curious tipplers. In doing so, he elevated the Pisco Punch to fame. A secret ingredient, cocaine, made the cocktail so potent and popular that he imposed a two-drink limit.

San Francisco’s prosperity lured fortune seekers the world over during the Gold Rush era, and the cocktail made the top-three list for tourists: ride a cable car, watch the sun set through the Golden Gate, and drink a Pisco Punch. Nicol’s saloon and his Pisco Punch attracted politicians, businessmen, and writers such as Mark Twain, who imbibed the cocktail with Tom Sawyer, a real-life firefighting hero. Rudyard Kipling even wrote that the Pisco Punch was “compounded of the shavings of cherubs’ wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and fragments of lost epics by dead masters.”

The Bank Exchange Saloon survived the 1906 earthquake, but it closed in 1919 due to Prohibition. A few years later, Duncan Nicol died and took the secret Pisco Punch recipe to his grave. Early accounts listed pisco, lime, syrup, and pineapple as the main ingredients, but pisco historians believe the secret ingredient was cocaine in Vin Mariani, a fortified red wine from Bordeaux infused with coca leaves from Peru. The wine’s ethanol extracted cocaine from the coca leaves and the wine’s color gave the cocktail its crimson hue, which explains the cocktail’s potency and Kipling’s “red clouds of sunset.”

Much like the Sazerac is the official cocktail of New Orleans, San Francisco deserves an official cocktail that represents the city’s storied past. That cocktail can only be the Pisco Punch. Throughout the city, bartenders shake inspired variations, sans cocaine. A modern recipe by San Francisco barman Duggan McDonnell replaces Vin Mariani with Lillet Rouge, a French aperitif wine with quinine, a medicinal ingredient originally made from the cinchona bark in Peru. In Lima, bartenders proudly serve the Pisco Punch and acknowledge its origin. But there, they infuse pisco with herbs to make macerados, and pisco infused with coca leaves is everywhere. 

Pisco Punch.
Pisco Sour.

Pisco Sour

Prohibition marked the end of the Pisco Punch and the beginning for the Pisco Sour. Nearly one hundred years after independence from Spain, Lima flourished during its belle epoque. The main artery of Lima’s cultural renaissance was Jiron de la Union, a pedestrian boulevard lined with theaters, French clothing stores, and cafes. There, the Palais Concert was a favorite hangout for bohemians, poets, and politicians who socialized over drinks and live music.

Across the street, Victor Morris opened Lima’s first official bar in 1916, and the Morris Bar served a cocktail called the Pisco Sour. Morris, an American from Utah, moved to Peru in 1903 to work as a cashier for the Cerro de Pasco Railway company in the Andes, but he relocated to Lima to open his bar. Early newspaper advertisements for his bar promoted gin, whisky, brandy, vermouth, and pisco cocktails. But before the Morris Bar, there were few references to pisco drinks in popular culture.

In colonial Lima, pisco aficionados sipped it neat in a daytime ritual known as las once, a coded reference to the number of letters in aguardiente. In the 1700’s, clandestine street vendors in Lima hawked pisco mixed with lime juice at bullfights. In the winter, homemakers prepared a spiced ponche with pisco, milk, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. But the Pisco Sour eclipsed them all.

Pisco historians consider Morris the creator of the Pisco Sour, and they believe he may have been inspired by the Whisky Sour or Silver Fizz, two cocktails with different spirits but similar ingredients and proportions. However, a recently discovered 1903 Peruvian cookbook published in Lima includes a recipe which may be the earliest written version of a Pisco Sour. Simply entitled “Cocktail,” the recipe’s ingredients read: “an egg white, a glass of pisco, a teaspoon of fine sugar, and a few drops of lime as desired.” Add bitters and you have a classic Pisco Sour.

No matter where the recipe came from, the Morris Bar attracted Lima’s elite, and their comments in the bar’s registry attested to the cocktail’s rising popularity. After Morris died in 1929, his pupil Mario Bruiget served Pisco Sours at the Hotel Maury in Lima’s historic city center. As the national drink of Peru, every bar in Lima serves the Pisco Sour, and the world quaffs the cocktail on Pisco Sour Day, the first Saturday in February.

Strict regulations govern pisco’s distillation, and its denomination of origin allows only eight grape varietals: four aromatic, and four non-aromatic. But the number of cocktails bartenders make with this grape distillate is infinite. The Pisco Sour and the Pisco Punch are among the first two, and their spirited histories have paved the way for many more.

Today, bars in Lima serve the Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch. Though the Morris Bar is gone, Hotel Maury and Gran Hotel Bolivar might be the heirs. In San Francisco, pisco slowly returns to its pre-Prohibition glory days. Not far from where the Bank Exchange Saloon once stood, Comstock Saloon pays homage to the Barbary Coast era with a Pisco Punch on the menu. To imbibe either cocktail, anywhere in the world, is to taste the past and travel back a century to the cities where they were born.