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Marian Blazes

Pisco Punch

By July 16, 2009

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Pisco punch is an American cocktail made with South American pisco brandy and pineapple juice. I'd never heard of this cocktail, which turns out to have quite a fascinating history. It was invented in San Francisco, around the time of the Gold Rush, when traders were bringing boatloads of goods from South America to San Francisco's ports, including pisco from Peru.

At the Bank Exchange Saloon, a bartender named Duncan Nicol became famous for making this very potent cocktail. According to this excellent 1957 article by Lucius Beebe from the Gourmet Magazine archives, Nicol had a special technique to make pisco punch (which he did rather secretly behind a bar grate, one drink at a time), and he would only allow a customer to drink two. If they wanted another one, they had to take a walk around the block. Rudyard Kipling was so taken with pisco punch that he described it in From Sea to Sea as "compounded of the shavings of cherubs' wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters."

When Duncan Nicol died in the 1920's, the recipe was thought to be lost forever. But many have tried to reinvent the secret formula, and this article - "The Secrets of Pisco Punch Revealed - The Lost Recipe" - has interesting pictures (of Duncan Nicol and the Bank Exchange building, among others) , as well as a transcript of an historical account by William Bronson of the "rediscovery" of the recipe. (Hint: gum arabic/gum syrup may be a key ingredient).

You can find many recipes for pisco punch on the internet, but this one from Esquire Magazine seems the most authentic from what I have read. Be forewarned - by all accounts pisco punch is deceptively strong stuff!

All About Pisco
Classic Pisco Sour Cocktail
Maracuyá (Passionfruit) Sour
Chilcano de Pisco (Pisco and Gingerale Cocktail)


July 19, 2009 at 1:27 pm
(1) AlchemistGeorge says:

The recipes you are linking to are the so-called “Lannes Recipe”, if you are curious, there is, in my opinion, a better, and more likely to be authentic recipes in Guillermo Toro-Lira’s book “Wings of Cherubs” – the G.T.L. recipe has a more likely historical provenance and follows a classic rule of proportions for tastes (4:3:2:1).

The drink itself is not that strong – I guess deadline pressure prevents you from making and trying these recipes – however it seems like the effect of the gum arabic is to slow the absorption of alcohol, so that after you’ve had one you really don’t feel much, ditto your second drink. So some caution is advised – I’ve been doing cocktail research for about 5 years and these are THE easiest drinking recipe I’ve ever served.

While this is very pleasant drink, it is, in my opinion, not sufficiently incredible to warrant Mr. Kipling’s (and others) elegant words. Guillermo Toro-Lira has a theory as to what the real ‘missing ingredient’ was that (in my mind) really explains the poetry.

Unfortunately, its just a theory, and probably we’ll never know what the last ingredient was.

July 19, 2009 at 1:54 pm
(2) AlchemistGeorge says:

The recipe that you are citing is what is now known as the “Lannes Recipe”, which one historian argues is more likely to be that of a competitor than the ‘real’ Pisco punch recipe. If you are curious, I’d recommend you read the book “Wings of Cherubs: The Saga of the Rediscovery of Pisco Punch Old San Francisco’s Mystery Drink” by Guillermo Toro-Lira – this book’s recipe seems to me to be more historically accurate and also follows one of the classic rules of proportions for sweet & sour balance.
I assume deadline pressure doesn’t allow you to try these recipes, its not that Pisco punch is that strong, it seems that the Gum Arabic dramatically slows the absorption of alcohol, so that even after your second drink you aren’t feeling much or any effect. Of all the cocktails I’ve ever drunk, this one goes down the easiest, so extra caution is warranted.
I’d also like to mention that while this is an wonderful drink, it doesn’t seem to warrant Kipling’s ecstatic praise. “Wings of Cherubs” makes a persuasive case as to what the missing ingredient really was – just a theory – but it does explain the poetry.

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