I’ll confess: I’m not the biggest fan of the District’s “native” cocktail, the Rickey. I dig its history and I like its refreshing qualities, but if I had to pick an official cocktail to drink on a regular basis, I’d go with New Orleans’s hometown hero any day but the hottest. The rich, flavorful Sazerac — rye, absinthe, bitters, sugar — is my kind of drink.
But now I’m looking westward for a potential source of “official” envy. In San Francisco, Duggan McDonnell, owner of Cantina bar in Union Square and co-founder of Campo de Encanto Pisco, is pushing for the city to name the pisco punch its official cocktail.
Like the drinks that Washington and New Orleans elected, it’s a cocktail that goes back a long way in the city’s history.
If you were to visually rewind the San Francisco skyline to late April 1906, you would find a landscape of devastation. The morning of April 18, a massive earthquake hit. Terrible fires broke out, and most of the city was destroyed. Yet on the site of what is now the Transamerica Pyramid, amid all the debris, you would have seen the Montgomery Block, the only major downtown building to survive.
On the ground floor was the Bank Exchange Saloon, where people from all over the world met up to drink and where, in the early days of the 20th century, the pisco punch made by a secretive Scotsman named Duncan Nicol inspired the kind of purple prose of praise usually reserved for mythical lovers and interventionist deities. Reports compared it to the kick of a mule or the blade of a scimitar, the consensus being that the drink was hella tasty and packed a massive, pleasant wallop.
Take Lucius Beebe, eulogizing the lost punch in a 1957 issue of Gourmet. He praised pisco itself as an unaged brandy “imported in great earthenware pipkins by sailing ship from far-off Peru, where the volcanic soil gave to the grapes an essential genius encountered nowhere else on earth.” In San Francisco, he wrote, pisco reached its full potential: “Once in the hands of Duncan Nicol it was translated, as by consecration in the name of a divinity more benevolent than all others, into pisco punch, the wonder and glory of San Francisco’s heady youth, the balm and solace of fevered generations, a drink so endearing and inspired that although its prototype has vanished, its legend lingers on, one with the Grail, the unicorn, and the music of the spheres.”
(And to think that all those years I bemoaned being born too late to experience San Francisco in the days of the Haight and Allen Ginsberg, I was pitching my regret tent six decades too late.)
The drink disappeared due to the Volstead Act and 18th Amendment. When Prohibition ended Nicol’s bartending career, reporters pestered him to reveal the recipe, which he’d reportedly always prepared out of sight of customers. Nicol told the press, “Even Mr. Volstead can’t take the secret from me.”
Nicol didn’t live to see repeal. For a long time, people thought that his recipe (one punch to rule them all?) was lost, though plenty of hucksters popped up claiming they had it. Then, in 1973, the California Historical Quarterly published a version many people think is the real deal, supposedly obtained from John Lannes, a former manager at the Bank Exchange. It’s composed of pisco, lemon juice, pineapple gomme syrup and distilled water.
For something that seems so simple, the recipe makes for a good drink: sweet, tart, silky and funky with that distinctive pisco tang.
But McDonnell thinks that version wasn’t the full story. He points to a Rudyard Kipling quote — “I have a theory it is compounded of the shavings of cherubs’ wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset” — which seems to imply a reddish tint; the Lannes recipe results in a drink that is distinctly golden. He notes other reports (“it makes a gnat fight an elephant”) that indicate the drink had a decidedly stimulating effect.
McDonnell believes that Nicol’s secret weapon — the X factor driving the hyperbole, the reason the punch packed a punch — was Vin Mariani, an aperitif wine commonly promoted at the time as a health tonic. It hasn’t been available since the early 20th century, because it contained an extract of coca leaf. Yep: cocaine.
When Nicol was first tending bar, such wines were widely consumed. Restrictions on them began even before Prohibition, though, and McDonnell guesses that’s why Nicol never made the drink in front of people. “Nicol was such an upstanding, highly regarded man that he could not say, ‘Oh, my secret ingredient was this highly disparaged thing that all of my colleagues and comrades and friends would look down on me about.’ . . . How could he admit that was what was in it the whole time?”
McDonnell says his version of pisco punch is the most historically accurate; in place of Vin Mariani he substitutes Lillet Rouge, which is close in flavor but obviously won’t create the same high.
He’s not looking to sell the city on a particular recipe as the official drink, but on pisco punch in all of its mysterious forms. Though he says certain elements — pineapple, lime, sweetener and, duh, pisco — must be present to deserve the name, the ongoing questions are part of what he likes about the drink. “There isn’t a lot of unknown or mystery or sizzle to American cocktail recipes anymore,” he says. Even if you can’t always get the old ingredient, “usually we know: It was Bordeaux or apricot liqueur or whatever. But with pisco punch there’s this sort of clandestine quality to it.”
His quest has a way to go: He says he hopes to start making a big push with the city Board of Supervisors after the November election and has promised to make the world’s biggest pisco punch on the lawn of City Hall if the measure succeeds. He upped the ante when we spoke, promising to coordinate with the Peruvian Embassy here in the District and make a giant pisco punch for Washington, too.
Until then, you can add his delicious interpretation of the drink to your roster, and give a wistful thought to those bygone days when a man with discretion and tenacity could still effectively keep a secret. I think we know that if the reserved Nicol were working today, someone would have hacked his smartphone for the recipe and released it on the Internet, along with all of his scandalous nude selfies.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
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