The Pisco Punch - When Red Wine from Italy contained cocaine...
Updated: Mar 29
When speaking of classic cocktails from days gone we always love to fawn over how the first 'Golden Age of Bartending' was a grand time where everybody was an aristocrat drinking with their pinky up & being all high class. Little do we forget what alcohol does to the human body as well as the COMPLETE lack of rules & regulations present in the world 120 years ago. So this leads us to the story of the day about a cocktail most have heard but maybe don't know enough about - The Pisco Punch - as well as its dirty little secret!
The Backstory: The story begins in The Bank Exchange Building in San Francisco that originally opened in 1853. We can wax on forever about the importance of San Francisco as a drinking city as well as a historical cocktail capitol. Regardless I'd like to dive into the meat of the story straight away if I can. So here you are next to this building on the corner of what was a legendary area known as 'Montgomery Block' & more importantly in front of the star of the story - The Bank Exchange Saloon.
The saloon is famed for its Pisco Punch that was so popular in its time that it has been written in books “A visitor to San Francisco must absolutely do three things: ride a cable car, watch the sun set through the Golden Gate, and drink a Pisco punch!” No one knows who originated the saying, but it is known that the saloon and it's famous tipple captured the attention of an era. The proprietor of the place & central to our story is Duncan Nicol & Pisco is his badge of honour.
The man, the myth & the legend:
That Scotsman was Duncan Nicol, and Nicol made the punch famous. Resolute and terse, a man of impeccable taste, the fame of Pisco punch is attached to the command of this barman’s persona. Basically a classic grizzled Scotsman abroad trying to do what he can!
During that era drinks weren't known to be particularly potent in the area but Duncan's most certainly were. Back then cocktails were principally composed with fortified wines, aperitifs, and vermouths, the Pisco punch was one of the first to turn this old formula upside down: the spirit became the principal ingredient. That was a novel idea then, and so the Pisco punch was extra, extra boozy. This potency prompted the resolute Scotsman of impeccable taste to institute a rule still found in some saloons today: only two drinks allowed per customer!
At this point the story isn't exactly crazy for the time or particularly new to the modern book loving bartender. Many bartenders researched the Pisco Punch to find out why it had gained such notoriety in San Francisco but all had drawn blanks until Duggan McDonnell. You see that Duncan had taken his secret of the Pisco Punch to his grave & years of research only found scribbles of recipes on different pieces of paper all over the place. What Duggan discovered was quite interesting though...
Duggan's research lead to a simple conclusion based on looking at the bigger picture as opposed to diving straight to the source. It all started with a quote from famous British writer Rudyard Kipling, who, after drinking a Pisco punch at the Bank Exchange, declared that the cocktail was “compounded of the shavings of cherub’s wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters.” In addition to Kipling’s crimson description, there has long been a belief that the Pisco punch of ribald San Francisco had cocaine in it. (Jesus Christ!) Of course, cocaine as we know it now didn’t exist in 1893 BUT according to research - coca leaves - were all quite the rage during the time.
The secret wine
In 1893, the Bordeaux-produced Vin Mariani, a fortified, aromatized red wine infused with coca leaves, captivated the attention of the world. Developed in the 1860s by chemist and health expert Angelo Mariani, Vin Mariani harnessed the magic of the Incas—coca leaves—in his wildly popular aperitif. Soon, many more coca wines followed, being produced in Bordeaux and California alike. But just a decade after Mariani’s colorful aperitif caught on, both the political climate for alcohol was souring and coca was being blamed for various undesirable behaviors. Soon, all coca wines were banned. Shortly before Prohibition, products containing actual coca could no longer be legally sold in the United States.
It is widely believed that it is this particular wine had been sourced by Duncan Nicol during his tenure & creation of the Pisco punch at the Bank Exchange Saloon. Although none will ever know the real truth I believe you should never truth get in the way of a good story. So here's the Duncal Nicol, to Pisco & the Pisco Punch!
The Pisco Punch 60 ml Campo de Encanto Grand & Noble Pisco 30 ml Homemade Pineapple Cordial or Reál Pineapple Syrup
30 ml fresh lime juice
15 ml Lillet Rouge or your favorite red wine
Dash aromatic bitters
Method: Shake it like you mean it, Strain like you love it!